The Journal of Politics


Campaign Support, Conflicts of Interest, and Judicial Impartiality: Can Recusals Rescue the Legitimacy of Courts?

James L. Gibsona1 and Gregory A. Caldeiraa2

a1 Washington University in St. Louis

a2 The Ohio State University


This article investigates citizen perceptions of the impartiality and legitimacy of courts, focusing on a state (West Virginia) that has recently been a battleground for conflict over campaign support, perceived conflicts of interest, and loss of impartiality. We employ an experimental vignette embedded within a representative sample to test hypotheses about factors affecting perceived judicial impartiality. Perhaps not surprising is our finding that campaign contributions threaten the legitimacy of courts. More unexpected is evidence that contributions offered but rejected by the candidate have similar effects to contributions offered and accepted. And, although recusal can rehabilitate a court/judge to some degree, the effect of recusal is far from the complete restoration of the institution’s impartiality and legitimacy. The processes by which citizens form and update their opinions of judges and courts seem to involve preexisting attitudes, normative expectations of judges, and perceptions of contextual factors associated with judicial decision making.

James L. Gibson is the Sidney W. Souers Professor of Government, Department of Political Science; Professor of African and African American Studies; Director, Program on Citizenship and Democratic Values, Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government, and Public Policy (all at Washington University in St. Louis) Department of Political Science, Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis, MO 63130; Fellow, Centre for Comparative and International Politics, and Professor Extraordinary in Political Science, Stellenbosch University (South Africa).

Gregory A. Caldeira is Distinguished University Professor, Dreher Chair in Political Communication and Policy Thinking, and Professor of Law. Department of Political Science, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH 43210.