Why Senate confirmation for state judicial nominees? Why not House? Or joint?

Numerous state legislatures in 2011 that have a version of merit selection (Arizona, Florida, Oklahoma) or have considered adopting merit selection (Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin) have put in provisions for Senate confirmation. Additionally, Rhode Island (HB 5675) considered removing the state senate’s existing confirmation power with respect to a trial court (Superior Court) and transferring the power to the house.

But the question arises: why Senate confirmation? There’s the case for reference to the U.S. Senate and its role in federal judicial confirmations. And this was consistent when a) state senators were elected by counties to represent the county as a whole (as in New Jersey) or clusters of counties (as in New York) and b) trial judges (and occasionally appellate judges) were picked by districts made up of clusters of counties.

Thanks to one person/one vote decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court over the years, the practice of Senate districts following county lines is over. The practice of appellate judges being chosen based on geography is also on the decline with only 10 states continuing to use the practice for courts of last resort and 17 of 40 states with intermediate appellate courts using district based selection (although Montana may buck the trend in 2012, Oregon voters rejected the idea 2-1 in 2006).

Moreover, as I noted in March, such proposals have fared much better in state senates than in state houses, and history bears this out. In short, when the power to confirm has been handed solely to the state senate, it has had mixed support in the state’s house. The only way it happens, normally, is when there is a litany of other issues in play.

When does Senate confirmation of appellate nominees come into a constitution?

  • Conventions changing entire constitution: Delaware, Hawaii, and New Jersey
  • Constitutional amendment changing most/entire Judiciary Article: Maryland (1970 attempt) and Utah
  • Constitutional amendment changing judicial selection only: Maryland (1976), New York
  • Constitutional amendment changing most/entire Executive Branch Article: Maine, Vermont

In the case of Maryland (1976) and New York (1977) the amendments to have Senate confirmation met with lower House approval as part of a package of bills related to the courts.

This institutional inertia may explain some 2011 activity. Consider the following:

  • The original Florida House proposal HJR 7111, introduced March 22, 2011 included nothing about Senate confirmation of justices of the planned modified supreme court with civil and criminal panels. The only mention of the Senate was a provision stripping the power of the court(s) to name their chief justice and giving it to the Governor with Senate confirmation. Six days later, SJR 1664 requiring Senate confirmation for the Supreme Court was passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee. On April 5, the Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee gave its approval of SJR 1664. By April 8, SCR 1046) and Oklahoma Senate (SB 621) did not fare as well. The Arizona bill went nowhere. The Oklahoma bill moved through the Senate and was not even brought up for a House committee hearing.

Roles of legislatures in appellate judicial selection

Both chambers

Connecticut: since the 1818 Constitution. An 1880 amendment (Article XXVI) allowed for the Governor to nominate, but still required confirmation by both chambers. A 1986 amendment added merit selection, permitting the Governor to nominate only from those names submitted by the Judicial Selection Commission.

Rhode Island: since the 1842 Constitution and kept as part of the 1986 constitution. A 1994 amendment added merit selection, permitting the Governor to nominate only from those names submitted by an independent non-partisan judicial nominating commission.

South Carolina: since the 1776 Constitution and kept as a part of the 1778, 1790, 1861, 1865 and 1868 constitutions, plus a 1973 revision to the judiciary article. A 1997 constitutional amendment added merit selection allowing the legislature to elect only from those names submitted by the Judicial Merit Selection Commission.

Virginia: since the 1776 Constitution and kept as part of the 1850, 1861, 1864, 1870, and 1902 constitutions.

Senate only

Delaware: since the 1897 Constitution. The 1776 Constitution specified a joint ballot of both chambers of the general assembly and the “president” (i.e. governor) of the state. The 1792 and 1831 Constitutions placed the power of appointment solely in the hands of the Governor.

Hawaii: since the 1949 Constitution.

Maryland: since a 1976 constitutional amendment. The 1776 Constitution gave appointment to the Governor with the Council “for the time being” and put it solely in the hands of the Governor via an 1837 amendment. Maryland’s 1864 Constitution provided for direct election of the judges of the top court (Court of Appeals), but provided the Governor with Senate confirmation would select the chief judge. The 1867 Constitution made 7 of the 8 chief judges of the state’s judicial circuits the state’s top court and provided the Governor with the confirmation of the Senate would select the chief judge of the Court of Appeals. This practice continued until a 1943 constitutional amendment separated the roles of chief circuit judge from judge of the Court of Appeals but still required direct election. A 1960 amendment reaffirmed direct election, while changing the geographic boundaries.

It should be noted that the Maryland proposal was initially rejected in 1970 (1970 version) and included most courts in the state (judges of the Court of Appeals, intermediate courts of appeal, Circuit Courts, and the Supreme Bench of Baltimore City), increased terms of office to 15 years, and made revisions to the power of the Commission on Judicial Disabilities which had just been created in 1966. The successful 1976 version focused exclusively on merit selection with Senate confirmation for appellate courts only.

New Jersey: since the 1844 Constitution. The 1776 Constitution made the Governor and Council the state’s top court (Court of Appeals). The current 1947 Constitution replicated the Governor-appoints-Senate confirms system of the 1844 Constitution, but with a significant change. Rather than being re-confirmed every 7 years, the justices would face only 2 Senate confirmations: one for their initial appointment and a second after 7 years. If reconfirmed a second time, they would remain in office until age 70.

New York Court of Appeals (state’s court of last resort): sporadically since the 1777 Constitution. Under the 1777 Constitution, a Council on Appointments made up of 4 Senators chosen by the Assembly, plus the Governor (to break ties) was used. The 1821 Constitution changed this to a Governor-appoints-Senate-confirms system. The 1846 Constitution created a bifurcated election system: 4 of the 8 judges would be elected by the statewide, the other 4 would be locally elected judges of the general jurisdiction court (confusingly called the “supreme court”) “having the shortest time to serve.” A new constitution was voted on, section by section, in 1869; the judicial article was the only one approved. That new article provided for statewide election. The 1894 Constitution and 1938 Constitution continued the statewide election system. A 1977 amendment that revamped much of the Judiciary Article created the present merit-selection-Senate-confirmation system.

10/24/11 update: Selection to the state’s primary intermediate appellate court, the Appellate Division, has no role for the legislature. The Governor alone elevates from the judges elected locally in partisan elections to the general jurisdiction court (confusingly called the “Supreme Court”).

Utah: since a 1984 constitutional amendment. The original 1895 constitution provided for statewide election. The 1984 amendment overhauling the entire Judiciary Article provided for the present merit-selection-Senate-confirmation system. A subsequent 1992 amendment increased the time for the Senate to consider nominations.

Vermont: since a 1971 constitutional amendment. The 1793 Constitution provide for joint election by the unicameral House and Executive Council, a practice that was continued when the Council was made the Senate via a 1836 amendment. An 1890 effort to shift this to the Senate alone was rejected by the Senate itself but was incorporated into the 1971 revision of the state’s entire Judiciary Article.


Maine: since a 1975 constitutional amendment (L.D. 25). The 1820 Constitution in place when Maine was separated from Massachusetts and became a state kept the Massachusetts practice of supreme court selection method of governor-appoints-and-executive-council-confirms. The 1975 amendment abolishing the Council created the current procedure for confirmation: the Governor nominates and a Joint House/Senate legislative committee recommends confirmation or rejection. That recommendation is binding unless the Senate overrides with 2/3 vote.

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