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Political outlook of state supreme court justices

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How does one capture the partisan outlook of state supreme court justices?

In October 2012, political science professors Adam Bonica and Michael Woodruff attempted to answer that question with their paper, State Supreme Court Ideology and "New Style" Judicial Campaigns.

Campaign finance scores (CFscores) were assigned to state Supreme Court justices based on campaign contributions and the ideologies associated with various contributors. Contributions made by the judges themselves, as well as contributions towards the judges' campaigns were factored in. In the absence of elections, the ideology of the appointing body (governor or legislature) was factored in, based on their campaign contributions data. A score above 0 indicated a more conservative leaning ideology while scores below 0 are more liberal.

The paper analyzed more than 900 state supreme court justices. This page will detail that information in aggregate form. There are 340 state supreme court justices. We have chosen the 340 justices as of October 2012 who received a CF score in the report. This study is not a definitive label of a justice but rather, an academic gauge of various factors.


The following tables depict the breakdown of liberal- and conservative-leaning justices.

This map depicts the breakdown in partisan ideology of state supreme court justices according to the Bonica/Woodruff study.
State Supreme Court Ideology Summary Data
Types Totals
liberal 171
conservative 165
N/A 4
Total Justices 340
Liberal-leaning Justices
Types Totals
Lean Liberal (0 through -0.5) 62
Strong Liberal (-0.5 through -1) 71
Very Liberal (-1 and lower) 38
Total Liberal Justices 171
Conservative-leaning Justices
Types Totals
Lean Conservative (0 through 0.5) 55
Strong Conservative (0.5 through 1) 70
Very Conservative (1 and higher) 40
Total Conservative Justices 165

State results

The top five most Liberal state supreme court justices according to the study are:

  1. New Mexico
  2. Maine
  3. Oregon
  4. New Hampshire
  5. Washington

The top five most Conservative state supreme court justices according to the study are:

  1. South Dakota
  2. North Dakota
  3. Texas
  4. Alabama
  5. Idaho

Note: In the table below, 1= the most Conservative state and 50= the most Liberal state

Full results


To identify the ideological leanings of state Supreme Court justices, Campaign finance scores (CFscores) were given to justices based on campaign contributions and the ideological association of various contributors. This included the judges’ own contributions as well as the contributors to a judge’s campaign. If no judicial election occurred, the ideological perspective of the judge’s appointee (whether governor or legislature) is taken into account, based on campaign contributions data.

To ensure all state supreme court justices were included in the data, the study provided three ways for a justice to be counted: As a candidate, contributor, or an appointee. All 52 state high courts thus were accounted for in the study’s measures.

According to Bonica, "The judicial CFscores are assigned using a step-wise procedure. If a justice ran for election, the ideal point is based on her [candidate CFscore]. If the justice has not run for elected office but is found in the contributor database, the ideal point is based on [the contributor CFscore]. If the justice was appointed, but has neither given nor received campaign contributions, the ideal point is based on [the CFscore of the appointing Governor] or the CFscore of the median member of the relevant legislative bodies involved in the appointment process."[1]

Out of all judges included in the study, about 31 percent of them were given points as candidates, 40 percent were given points based on their personal contribution records, and 24 percent were given points based on the governor or legislature that appointed them. The remaining 5 percent of justices are without points.

Scores are arranged by how strongly or weakly a judge or state leans either Liberal or Conservative:

  • A score below -1 indicates a very strong Liberal leaning
  • A score between -0.5 and -1 indicates a strong Liberal leaning
  • A score between -0.5 and 0 indicates a moderate Liberal leaning
  • A score of 0 indicates a split leaning between Liberal and Conservative
  • A score between 0 and 0.5 indicates a moderate Conservative leaning
  • A score between 0.5 and 1 indicates a strong Conservative leaning
  • A score above 1 indicates a very strong Conservative leaning

The authors of the study concluded that CFscores provide a reliable, singular measure that unifies what would otherwise include multiple complicated or unworkable methods.


Bonica and Woodruff sent election mailers to Montana voters titled "2014 Montana General Election Voter Information Guide" prior to the 2014 general election. The mailer ranked Montana's supreme court justice candidates on a scale of "More Liberal" to "More Conservative."

The political ideology of each candidate was calculated using Stanford University's "Database on Ideology, Money in Politics, and Elections (DIME)," which analyzes candidate contributions, as well as other factors, to determine partisan tendencies. The data included graphs for both supreme court races. Jim Rice and W. David Herbert were placed on the conservative side of the scale, with Herbert rated as having the most conservative ideology. The graphs included President Barack Obama on the liberal side and Mitt Romney on the conservative side for reference. In the race between Mike Wheat and Lawrence VanDyke, Wheat scored near Obama on the liberal side, while VanDyke scored near Romney on the conservative side.

When she became aware of the mailers in October, Montana Secretary of State Linda McCulloch filed a complaint in response, claiming that the mailers violated campaign practices and misrepresented her office by including the official state seal. "I think they actually crossed the line from research into influencing voters," McCulloch said.

Stanford University followed the controversy with an apology to the 100,000 Montana voters which the mailers were sent to, as well as to the secretary of state for the confusion. However, the university disclosed that the study's intention was not intended to favor any candidate, but sought "to learn whether, if voters are provided more information about candidates, those voters will be more likely to participate in the process."[2][3][4]

The secretary of state's complaint is available here.

External links