The Seattle Times editorial board wants to elect all judges, including part-timers on the Municipal Court, claiming that elected judges are more independent.
So the argument, I suppose, is that the best way to take politics out of judicial decisions is to turn all our judges into politicians, huh?
Sure, the Times makes a reasonable sounding argument that directly electing judges might make them more independent from those who would otherwise appoint them. (Though they neglect to provide any evidence that our Municipal Courts currently lack judicial independence.) But even if the Times is right, judicial elections would likely make judges more dependent on those who would finance their campaigns… and right now, there are absolutely no restrictions on individual contributions to judicial candidates.
National organizations like the US Chamber of Commerce are already spending hundreds of millions of dollars on local judicial races, completely changing the ideological complexion of courts in state after state. Here in WA, the aggressively political Building Association of Washington — an organization with ties to right-wing militia groups — spent at least $500,000 putting their lawyer, Jim Johnson, on the state Supreme Court.
Most judicial races continue to be low profile, low money affairs, making them the Baltic and Mediterranean Avenues of political Monopoly. A relatively small injection of cash into a campaign where name recognition is your most valuable asset, can easily determine the outcome, making judicial races an absolute bargain for wealthy special interests intent on monopolizing our courts.
But what we need on the courts are judges who know the law, not those who know how to appeal to wealthy backers or even fickle voters. Our judicial system is supposed to be free from politics, not absolutely dependent on it.
A better solution might be one in which an independent commission recommends limited slates of qualified candidates for open judicial seats, subject to executive appointment and legislative confirmation. Once appointed, judges would serve for life, subject to periodic retention votes in which the public gets to cast a thumbs up or down on each sitting judge. Such a system would ensure judicial independence from both those who appointed them, and from the whims of public sentiment… not to mention wealthy special interests. It would also unclutter the ballot of judicial races on which, quite frankly, most voters (including myself) are usually unqualified to make an informed decision.
The Times proposal, to elect more judges, has a simple, populist appeal. But it will do nothing to increase the quality and independence of judges serving on our Municipal Courts.