74 Judicature 271 (1990-1991)
Awareness of Trial Court Judges

handle is hein.journals/judica74 and id is 273 raw text is: Awareness of trial court judges
As shown by a recent study in Texas, judges have little name or office recognition. Such
lack of voter awareness makes the objective of judicial accountability problematic.
by Anthony Champagne and Greg Thielemann

C onventional wisdom, sup-
ported by some empirical
work, suggests that voters tend
to be unaware of the judges
they elect.' As a result, in partisan elec-
tion jurisdictions, voters may rely on
cues such as political party affiliation or
name recognition in casting their votes
for judicial candidates.' It is largely
understood in the voting literature that
. Klots, The Selection of Judges and the Short
Ballot, 38 J. AM. JUD. Soc'Y. 134 (1955). Low levels
of voting participation injudicial elections provide
indirect support for the claim that voters lack
awareness of judicial candidates. Numerous scho-
lars have reported relatively low levels of judicial
voting participation, including Jacobs, Judicial
Insulation-Elections, Direct Participation, and
Public Attention to the Courts in Wisconsin. 1966
Wis. L. REV. 801 (1966); Ladinsky and Silver, Popu-
lar Democracy and Judicial Independence: Electo-
rate and Elite Reactions to Two Wisconsin Su-
preme Court Elections, 1967 Wis. L. REV. 128
(1967); and Barber, Ohio Judicial Elections-
Nonpartisan Premises with Partisan Results, 32
OHIo ST. L. J. 762 (1971). Low levels of public
awareness of appointed justices have also been
reported. See, Bennack, The Public, the Media and
the Judicial System: A National Survey on Citizens'
Awareness, 7 ST. CT. J. 4 (1983). However, voter
awareness of judges can be greatly increased by
information pamphlets. See, Sheldon c Lovich,
Knowledge and Judicial Voting: The Oregon and
Washington Experience, 67 JUDICATURE 235 (1983).
Mixed results on awareness of Ohio Supreme Court
candidates has been reported by Baum with very
high awareness of the controversial Ohio Chief Jus-
tice race in 1986. See Baum, Voters' Information in
Judicial Elections: The 1986 Contests for the Ohio
Supreme Court, 77 Ky. L. J. 645 at 664-67 (1988-89).
2. Champagne, The Selection and Retention of
Judges in Texas, 40 S.W.L.J. 53, 95-99 (1986);
Dubois, The Significance of Voting Cues in State
Supreme Court Elections, 13 L. & Soc'y. REV. 757 at
768-70 (1979).
3. Baum, supra n. 1, at 647-650.
4. Bedicheck & Tannahill, PUBLIC PoLICY IN
TEXAS 258 (1986).
5. In states with established two-party systems,
party can provide a cue to the ideology of judicial
candidates. See, for example, Dubois, FROM BALLOT
TO BENCH: JUDICIAL ELECTIONS AND THE QUEST FOR
ACCOUNTABILITY (1980). For the weakness of party
as an ideological predictor in Texas, see, Dyer, Ved-
litz & Hill, New Voters, Switchers, and Political
Party Realignment in Texas, 41 W.P.Q. 155, 160
(1988).
6. Abromowitz, Name Familiarity, Reputation,
and the Incumbency Effect in a Congressional Elec-
tion, 28 W.P.Q. 668 (1975); Jacobson, THE POLITICS
OF CONGRESSIONAL ELECTIoNs (1987); Mann, Public
Awareness of Congressional Candidates in Niemi
and Weisberg, CONTROVERSIES IN VOTING BEHAVIOR
(2d. ed.) 251 (1984).

the further down the ballot a race is, the
less widespread the interest. As a result,
fewer people vote in these races, and
those who do are more likely to rely on
the simple cues of party and the sound of
the name. This phenomenon has led to
pointed questions about the wisdom of
the election process in down-ticket races,
including judicial contests which are
always found down on the ballot. As a
result, proponents of merit selection
argue that these voters are uninterested
and/or uninformed, and that merit selec-
tion would offer a better judiciary. Elec-
tion supporters, on the other hand, argue
that greater efforts should be undertaken
to inform voters.3
This issue has been prominent in
Texas for some time. The wisdom of the
Texas judicial election voter first fell
under intense scrutiny with the election
of Don Yarbrough to the Texas Supreme
Court in 1976. This was a case where
name recognition, albeit incorrect name
recognition, led to a 290,000 vote plural-
ity for a candidate who claimed that he
took his instructions from God. Yar-
brough defeated an established judge
with bar association endorsements.4
Partly as a result of this case, and a seem-
ing pattern of voter unawareness of judi-
cial candidates, merit selection of Texas
judges has received some momentum in
recent years.
In Texas, a central point in the debate
over merit selection versus partisan elec-
tion has been that judges are not known
by voters, and therefore voters are unin-
formed in casting their ballots. The lack
of awareness, it is argued, makes the
objective of judicial accountability a
questionable one. If voters do not know
judges, it is argued, they cannot remove
bad ones. Additionally, in a state like
Texas where there is not a long-standing
tradition of a two-party system, party
does not clearly delineate judicial ideol-
ogies as it would in more traditional
two-party systems.5 The literature sug-

gests that name recognition is an impor-
tant part of voters' considerations, but
much of the literature on the subject of
name recognition is from congressional
voting research which concludes that
name recognition is important because
it is at the core of incumbency. These
congressional races, however, get con-
siderably more attention than judicial
races and are not subject to the same fade
in voter awareness.6
The literature
The literature on judicial voting is
sketchy at best, particularly in Texas. To
date there have only been two published
studies of voter awareness of judges and
judicial candidates in Texas. One study
was done during the 1976 general elec-
tion in Lubbock. It was based on polling
place exit interviews and was at a time
when Texas judicial races tended to be
noncompetitive. Only 14.5 per cent of
the Lubbock sample could recall the
name of one state supreme court or court
of criminal appeals candidate, compared
to 43.7 per cent who could do so for one
senator and 50.7 per cent who could
recall a U.S. House of Representatives
candidate. Only 2.5 per cent could name
county court candidates and only 4.9 per
cent could name district court candidates.
Most interestingly, Don Yarbrough
was pitted against two write-in candi-
dates in the general election. He had a
Democratic primary opponent, Charles
Barrow, who was the overwhelming
choice of the state bar's preferential poll.
Prior to or at the time of his election,
Yarbrough was the target of at least 15
law suits. Two weeks before the general
election, he was the subject of a disbar-
ment suit, which alleged law violations
and professional misconduct. Media at-
tention for this race was very high.
Nevertheless, 75.2 per cent of the sample
of voters were unaware of the Yarbrough
controversy. All together, 85.8 per cent of
the sample could not recall the name of

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