As Washington voters cast ballots today to elect one, and possibly two State Supreme Court justices, it’s time for all of us to seriously consider the concerns of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor:
Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has taken up the cause of reforming state judicial campaign and election systems, writing that the “crisis of confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary is real and growing.” If left unaddressed, said O’Connor, “the perception that justice is for sale will undermine the rule of law that courts are supposed to uphold.”
[…] “We all expect judges to be accountable to the law rather than political supporters or special interests,” writes O’Connor. “But elected judges in many states are compelled to solicit money for their election campaigns, sometimes from lawyers and parties appearing before them. Whether or not those contributions actually tilt the scales of justice, three out of four Americans believe that campaign contributions affect courtroom decisions.”
Or to put it less judiciously… electing judges is just plain stupid.
Yes, I know it would take a constitutional amendment to end judicial elections, and yes, I know such a proposal contradicts my axiom that nobody votes for less democracy, but our current system is gradually being co-opted by wealthy special interests. From District and Superior Court elections, where the winning candidate in a contest for an open seat is most often the one who puts the most of their own money into the race, to the millions of dollars now spent on attack ads in Supreme Court races, the current system is simply no longer serving the purpose for which it was designed.
Better would be a nonpartisan nomination and appointment process along with public retention votes, the details of which could be worked out by folks more expert than me, but which would surely be better than what we have now, in which the average voter is asked to elect judges given very little if any information about the candidates other than the gender and ethnicity of their names, and whatever propaganda the candidates (and third parties) can afford to provide. Hell… I’m not qualified to vote in most judicial races, and I’m about as informed a voter as you’ll find.
I mean, what good can you say about a system that virtually assures the election of any judge named “Johnson”…?
Some folks advocate for public financing of judicial elections, but the best way to take politics out of the judiciary is to simply stop electing them. And it’s past time to start seriously having this conversation.