A study group led by Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul De Muniz, who is retiring, will begin examining this month possible reforms in the way judges are chosen for the state’s two highest courts.
In a proposal for the work group in 2011, Chief Justice De Muniz wrote, “Nationally, the increasing politicization of state judicial elections puts at risk judicial independence and erodes public confidence in the impartiality of judicial decisions. More recent judicial election campaigns in Oregon have exemplified the growing trend for judicial elections to become more and more affected by partisan politics.”
According to a column in The Oregonian by Susan Nielsen, reform efforts in Oregon have not gotten traction in the past decades, but “[u]gly battles in Iowa and other states, combined with an explosion in campaign spending, have changed the game.” Voters removed three state Supreme Court justices in Iowa in 2010, in retaliation for a court ruling that permitted same-sex marriages.
One reform suggestion that has been floated is for Oregon to move to what is known as The Missouri Plan, for a proven appointment-and-retention system of judicial elections there.
On a web site for the study group, reading materials for the first meeting included a report co-authored by Justice at Stake and partner groups entitled “The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2009-10.” The report found that independent expenditures by special interest groups accounted for nearly 30 percent of the money spent on state judicial elections during the two-year period, far higher than four years earlier (see Gavel Grab).
In North Carolina, meanwhile, a WFAE radio report explained how judicial elections work in the Tarheel State and questions raised about the process.