How We Choose Our Judges

2015-12-09-1-rutledgeJesse Rutledge is vice president for external affairs at the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) in Williamsburg, Virginia. On December 9, 2015, he talked about how Virginia and other states select their state-court judges and the advantages and disadvantages of each method. In this podcast, you will learn how many states let the people pick their judges through popular elections and what the US Supreme Court had to say about freedom of speech when judges must also be “candidates” like other politicians. Virginia is one of two states that select judges by vote of the legislature. The program was moderated by SSV board member Terry Cooper.


At NCSC Mr. Rutledge oversees the organization’s communications, marketing, information services, associations, conferences, and private development efforts. Prior to joining NCSC, he served as deputy director at the Justice at Stake Campaign in Washington, D.C. where his work focused on documenting special interest threats to the courts and developing public education campaigns to combat those threats. His commentary has appeared in state and national media, including the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Roll Call, and on National Public Radio and BBC Radio. He holds a B.A. and M.A. in political science.

Program Summary

Mr. Rutledge’s central theme addressed the competing values of independence vs. accountability. That is, we place a high value on the ability of our judges to act independently, yet at the same time we want them to be accountable for their actions. The various states have adopted differing methods of choosing their judges and each method affects the competing values of independence and accountability.

States employ four different methods to choose their judges. Virginia is one of just two states that select their judges through legislative elections. Ten states use a process Rutledge terms as “appointment without retention election.” The so-called “Missouri Plan with election retention” is used by 16 states, and 22 states hold contested elections.

Mr. Rutledge discussed the role of financing for the campaigns in those states that hold popular elections and the ramifications for the competing values of independence and accountability. He also showed videos of campaign ads that had many in the audience cringing—and others laughing!

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