Oh man, do I feel dirty. Yesterday I agreed with Seattle Times editorial columnist Bruce Ramsey. And today I agree with (ugh) Katie Riley, as she argues in support of former US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s crusade to end judicial elections.
Washington voters will remember the bruising supreme court justice races in 2006, when the Building Industry Association of Washington targeted the well-respected Chief Justice Gerry Alexander with unseemly and misleading ads. Alexander prevailed but the experience left many observers of Washington’s judicial elections uneasy at the close call — except, interestingly enough, the chief justice himself, who remains strongly in favor of judicial elections.
Advocates argue the system worked, that the nasty campaign spawned a voter backlash that saved Alexander. But I agree with those who argue the conversation would be much different if Alexander had been ousted.
However, the surprising truth about Washington’s judicial election system is that most judges aren’t elected. They arrive on the bench through a gubernatorial appointment. Of the state’s 218 elected judges on the supreme, appeals and superior courts, 60 percent of them were appointed by the governor, according to a 2009 study by Washington State University professors. And when they come up for re-election, 84 percent of incumbent judges are unchallenged.
Count me with those who think a citizen-based nominating commission, similar to that recommended by the 1996 Walsh Commission, would be a better way. The nominating commission would vet candidates and recommend the best to the governor for appointment. The judges would stand for retention elections.
My recollection is, that’s the way we did it in Pennsylvania, and as irritating as it may be for some folks out here to hear, there are things to be learned from other states… even East Coast ones.
Problem is, one of my rules of political thumb is that nobody ever votes for less democracy, and that’s exactly how such sensible reform would be misrepresented by opponents should it ever come to the ballot. That’s why I don’t find it surprising to hear Justice Alexander voice his support for the current system; he is, after all, subject to it, and any perceived opposition to direct election of judges could be effectively used against him in the next election. So the leadership to address this issue before it corrupts our judicial system must come from the governor and the legislature, as well as the editorial boards and other opinion leaders.
Over the past decade the US Chamber of Commerce alone has spent hundreds of millions of dollars influencing local judicial elections, an effort that has successfully flipped the ideological balance at the Supreme Court and appellate level in several states. I just don’t think that’s what the framers of Washington’s constitution had in mind when they enacted judicial elections as a safeguard against the railroad barons and bankers who had previously dominated the region’s government.