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Are tenured judges insulated from political pressure?

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Tenured public officials such as judges are often thought to be insulated from political pressure and, as a result, indifferent to the concerns of the electorate. We investigate this proposition empirically using data on promotion decisions taken by senior English judges between 1985 and 2005. Throughout this period the popular view was one of ill-disciplined elitism: senior judges were alleged to be favouring candidates from elite backgrounds over their equally capable non-elite counterparts. We find evidence in support of this view to be surprisingly weak; most of the unconditional difference in promotion prospects between the two groups can simply be explained by differences in promotion-relevant characteristics. We then exploit an unexpected proposal to remove control over promotions from the judiciary and find that judges' behaviour dramatically changed. When faced by the prospect of losing autonomy, senior judges began to favour non-elite candidates, as well as candidates who were unconnected to members of the promotion committee.

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