It looks like some judges in the US (seems mostly on local level) are elected, whereas some (e.g. SCOTUS) are appointed.

Is there a good, well-known pattern (based on judge level, locale, etc...) that would explain which judges are appointed vs. elected?

It could be an actual law governing this, or merely a descriptive function/pattern that fits all the existing data.

  • I'm at a loss as to how to tag this... feel free to fix tags if someone has a better idea.
    – user4012
    Commented Feb 17, 2013 at 16:27
  • It's a tricky one ... maybe office-holders in place of elected-vs-appointed?
    – user97
    Commented Feb 17, 2013 at 19:44
  • Federal Judges are appointed and State judges are usually elected. Commented Feb 19, 2013 at 1:07
  • @Chad - that's my guess, but is there some codified set of precise rules?
    – user4012
    Commented Feb 19, 2013 at 2:53
  • 1
    Its going to be by state constitution for which judges are elected and which are appointed. The Constitution give the president the power to appoint and congress the duty to confirm federal judges. Commented Feb 19, 2013 at 9:45

1 Answer 1


All federal judges are appointed to lifetime terms, as per the constitution. The phrasing is a bit weird, so I won't quote it.

States may, like anything else, set their own rules. There is no (federal) constitutional requirement that non-federal judges be appointed or elected.

There is thus no rule that can be identified. Balllotpedia has a nice overview. Most states use the same method for all judges, but there are exceptions, e.g. South Dakota and Tennessee. The closest to a rule that I can see is that if a state does use two or more methods, they tend to appoint the higher level judges (e.g. the state Supreme Court) and elect lower level judges (e.g. trial judges). But even that has at least one exception, Montana, where the Worker's Compensation court is appointed but the state Supreme Court is elected.

Some states also have retention elections. In a retention election, a judge runs unopposed and people vote yes to retain or no to send to a regular election. Retention elections usually are non-controversial and retain the judges. Retention elections may appear in states that appoint, like Iowa, or in states with elections, like Pennsylvania.

Other states may have limited terms where the judges can run for reelection against opposition. Or be reappointed.

  • 1
    And, very rarely (like once in 80 years), a judge gets recalled: Aaron Persky, the judge involved in the Brock Turner sexual assault case has just been recalled
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Jun 9, 2018 at 7:09

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