Political scientists and proposed procedural reforms

John Sides gives some arguments (including citations to recent research) for why he thinks that term limits for Supreme Court judges would not have much effect on the politics of court nominations and confirmations.

I respect where John is coming from, but at the same time I resist what I see as the occasional habit of political scientists to report a null effect and imply from that the conclusion that various reforms don’t matter or shouldn’t be done. This comes up here with term limits for judges and has also come up regarding ideas for campaign finance reform, nonpartisan primaries, and nonpartisan redistricting. I resist anti-reform arguments for two reasons:

1. There’s no reason to believe that whatever happens to be the current rule in the U.S. is actually an optimal policy or anything close to it. Reforms proposed for the U.S. are often close to existing policies in other countries.

2. Outcomes are multidimensional. I discuss various potential outcomes of term limits on judges here and here.

3. Much of the research essentially compares of the current system to the past. There were long-serving elderly judges in the past, just as there are today, so why worry?

But who’s to say that the Supreme Court was so wonderful in the past? Roger Taney was 80 years old when he ruled on the Dred Scott case, which is, I believe, the consensus for the worst call in Supreme Court history. The case came on his 22nd year on the Court.

As I wrote earlier, I see political scientists, as a group, as often being too committed to whatever the current system is, for example pooh-poohing campaign finance reform because it can be evaded or dismissing open primaries because there’s no convincing evidence that they will get rid of partisan polarization.

In contrast, I often feel that a reform can be a good idea, even if it doesn’t solve all the problems.it’s intended to address. For example, I think gerrymandering is way overrated as a political problem—in 1994, Gary and I even wrote a paper called Enhancing Democracy Through Legislative Redistricting in which we showed that existing redistricting (gerrymandering and all) led to more competitive elections—but I’d still support a move toward nonpartisan redistricting.

From the other direction, though, it can make sense to ask why a particular reform is being suggested at a particular time. In some cases, it’s clear: for example, the recent proposals to change Senate rules are a direct response to the sharp increase in the use of the filibuster in recent years. I’m not sure if there’s anything so topical motivating the Supreme Court discussion; maybe it’s just an issue that comes up from time to time. In any case, in response to my generic reaction that John is being a typical political scientist by reflexively dismissing a reform proposal, John might well respond that I am showing the generic reaction of naive reformers to give a default positive view to whatever flavor-of-the-month reform happens to be talked about by pundits right now.

As I noted above, my differences with John on this issue seem more of a matter of emphasis than anything else. Are lifetime appointments and long terms basically OK, given that this system has been in place for more than two centuries (as John says), or would it make sense to change the rules (as I’m inclined to think)? In any case, the data that John and others bring to the table help us to understand these arguments.

P.S. One asymmetry in this particular online discussion is that, in the above-linked post, political scientist John Sides refers (and links) to argument from journalists and from political scientists, while journalist Timothy Noah (linked to by Sides) only refers and links to other journalists. One benefit of the Monkey Cage, I hope, is that political journalists will in the future be more likely to be aware of and respond to findings from political scientists. As noted above, I don’t think the null-effect findings of political scientists translate so clearly into policy recommendations—-so I certainly don’t think journalists such as Noah should be deferring to political scientists. I just look forward to the day that they take a look at and acknowledge the research literature before going on to express opinions (just as an economics reporter such as Felix Salmon can disagree with prominent economics researchers, but he’ll still want to be aware of the research claims, if only to prepare a credible dissenting argument).

7 Responses to Political scientists and proposed procedural reforms

  1. Realist Writer April 6, 2012 at 3:18 pm #

    Um, Part 4 and your article are almost exactly identical. Is it intentional?

    • Andrew Gelman April 6, 2012 at 8:02 pm #


      I copied some things that I thought were relevant so people wouldn’t have to flip back and forth.

  2. OneEyedMan April 6, 2012 at 4:23 pm #

    Maybe the status quo is imperfect but I don’t follow the policy consequences of this argument. Should we really be willing to switch the governance of hundreds of millions of people because they sound promising? In the absence of evidence that seems like policy making by hunch. I see this as more of an argument for experimentation. Try things out in corners of the government and accumulate evidence to support or reject our hunches.

  3. Shirt April 6, 2012 at 8:35 pm #

    I would submit that the being a Justice of the Supreme Court of the land should require some capability testing and, if proven capable, that ends the mater for another 5 years. If shown to be incapable they should be placed on a removal path.

  4. Brian Schmidt April 6, 2012 at 11:19 pm #

    Two points I’ve made on this issue:

    1. Not only is average longevity much greater now, it’ll be even more so in the future. These 50 year-old appointees could be benefiting from the medical technology of the 2050s to stay in office. What does “lifetime tenure” mean in the 2050s? If we even put a 50-year term limit in place, I still think that’s better than we’ve got now, and what threatens us in the future.

    2. Retired Supreme Court justices seem to want to do useful things that benefit society. This is a way to manufacture more retired Supreme Court justices.

  5. Matthew Shugart April 9, 2012 at 1:16 pm #

    Good points.

    I think there is indeed an “anti-reform” bias in American politics–both the field in our discipline and the politics itself. But I don’t think one could say the same thing about comparative politics. Maybe it is because we, as a field, study inherently more changeable places. Maybe it is simply because we study more places.

  6. John Nugent April 10, 2012 at 1:09 pm #

    One reason political scientists might reflexively oppose reform proposals is that the public debates about such proposals are often of such poor quality (hyperbole, selective use of historical examples, etc.). An underused but potentially rich source of evidence about various reforms could be state-level versions of those reforms. (The authors of The Federalist used a lot of this kind of evidence.) But as I’ve pointed out in a paper (available at http://tiny.cc/n95jcw), evidence of state experiences with reforms like term limits, line-item vetoes, and campaign finance typically get used opportunistically, if at all, in debates about reforms at the federal level. Certainly we have to be carefully about extrapolating state-level experience to the federal level, but if we believe at all in the laboratories of democracy idea, a thorough debate should at least consider this kind of evidence.