Money and Elected Judges

You might think the toughest decision facing voters in key states like Michigan and Ohio is whether to go for Bush or Gore. In fact, they may have an even harder time deciding whom to elect to their state supreme courts.

They won't be alone. Voters in dozens of other states will also be choosing judges whose rulings could have a larger impact on their lives than anything emanating from the White House.

The idea of electing judges has a long history in the United States. It can be traced back to the Jacksonian vision of direct popular democracy. But it has distinct drawbacks, which are clearer than ever this year as special interest groups pump unprecedented amounts of money into state judicial races. (See story.)

Judges should be pillars of objectivity. The have to approach cases with neutrality. If they have widely known views on issues that will come before them - tort reform, for instance, or abortion rights - the public's confidence in judicial fairness could be undermined.

Yet that's the clear tendency of races where special interests - such as business groups and labor unions - line up behind judicial candidates.

Judges are acutely aware of this problem. Reforms like contribution limits in judicial races and restrictions on what candidates can say during a campaign are being tried - and often challenged in court as abridgements of free speech.

The best step would be to move all state judgeships toward an appointment process that includes nominations by an independent panel of citizens knowledgeable about the legal system.

This may not wholly remove judges from the political realm. After all, their decisions can have sharp political ramifications. But it would relieve voters of decisions they may be ill-prepared to make. And it would improve the prospects of keeping one critical branch of government from sinking into the morass of big-money politics.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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