As Oregon readies for the rare direct election of two state Supreme Court justices next year, there is scrutiny of the state’s judicial selection process and a call for looking at a merit-based appointment system.
According to a (Salem) Statesman-Journal column by Peter Wong, two retirements will result in direct election for two seats next year. After that, for the first time in nearly a century, a majority of the court will be made up of justices directly elected by voters.
Democratic state Rep. Chris Garrett recently wrote, “It is time to ask whether our system of electing judges is really a healthy one,” Wong notes, and he concurs: “Garrett has a point.”
Wong cites a $1.4 million election contest for an opening in 2006, and soaring election costs nationwide during the past decade as reported by Justice at Stake and partner groups.
Garrett detailed his ideas in a recent OregonLive.com column entitled, “Campaign money and influence: It’s time for Oregon to reform judicial selections.”
“Oregon has no rules limiting the dollar amounts that can be contributed in state elections,” Garrett explained. “Thus, unless we make changes to our system of selecting judges, we are at risk of joining other states that are seeing a flood of special interest money into judicial elections.”
Garrett pointed to the likelihood of high-profile races for the state Supreme Court next year and to trends spotlighted by Justice at Stake and partner groups in the recent “New Politics of Judicial Elections, 2009-10” report. He quoted the report as describing “coalescing national campaign that seeks to intimidate America’s state judges into becoming accountable to money and ideologies instead of the constitution and the law.”
“Forcing judges to worry about fundraising and to defend their decisions in political campaigns will tempt them to choose what is easy to defend, rather than what they think is right,” Garrett elaborated in his column. He concluded with a call for studying merit selection as an alternative:
“An alternative to judicial elections would be a merit-based appointment system with input from broadly representative screening panels. While the details need careful study, Oregon should wait no longer to move in this direction. We have been blessed with quality judges and clean judicial elections, but we are tempting fate. As long as we hold judicial elections with unrestricted money (and our state constitution makes it very difficult to restrict that money), we risk the same type of spectacle that has infected other states and undermined confidence in the legal system.”