An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Fall 2008

Why state courts - and state-court elections - matter

Ronald Marc George

Ronald M. George has been a Justice of the Supreme Court of California since 1991 and has served as Chief Justice since 1996.

The vast majority of law cases in our nation are filed, heard, and determined in the courts of the various states.1  Yet the attention paid to the role of state courts in our society–and threats to that role–often has lagged behind that accorded the federal courts in both public and scholarly notice. The study of state tribunals is complicated because the judicial systems in the fifty states often are structured very differently from one another. The division of labor among the courts of any given state, the scope of a particular court’s jurisdiction, the manner of selection and retention of judges or justices, and even the names of analogous courts, to cite a few significant areas, are far from uniform and often reflect unique aspects of the history and development of the individual state.

This lack of uniformity at the state level, and the attendant difficulties in tracking and comparing court cases, should not, however, mask the substantial role of state courts in advancing our nation’s interest in providing fair and impartial adjudication to the public. The steadily increasing focus over the past few years on the impartiality of state courts, as well as on the improper pressures that have been applied to courts on both the state and federal level, reflects a growing awareness that the fate of state courts and the public’s respect for their rulings have significant implications for our democratic system, both locally and nationally. At risk is not only the judicial process, but also the basic political structure of our nation. And the word political is used here in both its broadest and its most partisan senses.

The issues revolving around our third branch of government are varied and complex. Even the shared meaning of common catchphrases no longer may be taken for granted. A few years ago, for example, Judge Mary Schroeder, former .  .  .


  • 1This paper is taken from a talk given at the 225th Annual Meeting and 1902nd Stated Meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences held on May 10, 2006. Upon reviewing those remarks for inclusion in this volume, I concluded that the growing interest and body of material relating to judicial elections in state courts required that substantial revisions be made, and I have done so. The result is a continuation of some of the themes contained in that initial address. I deeply appreciate the invaluable assistance of my Principal Attorney Beth J. Jay in preparing this article.
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