Public trust in fair and impartial courts is eroded when judicial candidates are forced to raise big money from special interests who want to influence their decisions, a New York Times editorial warned.
The editorial was entitled, “No Way to Choose a Judge.” Regarding elections for high courts in numerous states this year, the editorial said:
“Requiring would-be judges to cozy up to party leaders and raise large sums from special interests eager to influence their decisions seriously damages the efficacy and credibility of the judiciary. It discourages many highly qualified lawyers from aspiring to the bench. Bitter campaigns — replete with nasty attack ads — make it much harder for judges to work together on the bench and much harder for citizens to trust the impartiality of the system.”
The editorial mentioned current or past elections in two states, Alabama and Pennsylvania. In Alabama, former Chief Justice Roy Moore won the Republican primary contest for his old job. He was removed from his former post by a special ethics court “after he defied a court order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the lobby of the state judicial building in Montgomery,” the editorial said.
In Pennsylvania, it said, state Sen. Jane Orie is standing trial on charges she used government staff to help her sister, Joan Orie Melvin, campaign successfully for the state Supreme Court in 2009. In that state, the reform group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts is engaged in a “promising effort” to persuade legislators to scrap partisan judicial elections for an appointment-and-retention election system, the editorial said. It concluded:
“While it would not be a perfect fix — retention votes still require fund-raising and politicking — it would be a start toward ridding the state’s courtrooms of politics and campaign cash. Fortunately, a proposal to repeal Florida’s merit appointment system isn’t going anywhere, at least for now. The country certainly does not need any more bad examples of justice for sale.”
Both Pennsylvania and Alabama are major judicial election battleground states; Alabama has become known for holding the nation’s most costly state Supreme Court elections between 2000 and 2009 (see Gavel Grab), although that trend was not being borne out this year. Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts is a JAS partner group.