There are some 30,000 judges at the state and local levels in the United States, where the public has most of its encounters with the legal system. A whopping 87 percent of those judges are elected.
That may seem a testament to democracy. But, in fact, the prevalence of elected judgeships prompts deep concern that a pillar of democracy judicial independence might be compromised.
Like political candidates, judges who have to run for office need to raise money and more of it than ever before. Between 1996 and 2000, state supreme court candidates, on average, doubled the money they spent on races. In Ohio, the race for chief justice cost $100,000 in 1980. In 2000: $2.7 million.
And, no surprise, a lot of the campaign money comes from attorneys. Just the appearance of a judge, supposed to rule fairly on the laws of the land, possibly subject to influence by the very people who appear before him or her should be enough to spur rethinking.
To that end, the Committee for Economic Development (CED), a nonprofit, nonpartisan group of business leaders and university presidents, has just released a report, "Justice for Hire." It calls for an end to electing judges and for establishment of nonpartisan judicial nominating committees like those already in place in 24 states.
Of course, political cronyism in the judicial appointment process historically has been a problem, too. It's why Jacksonian Democrats early on fought to have the people elect their judges. Such cronyism obviously must be avoided in any new system of selecting judges.
Realizing its ultimate goal won't be achieved quickly, the CED offers a set of reasonable compromises that state legislatures ought to consider. They include:
End partisan elections in states that now have them. That should reduce public perception of judge as advocate for a party's agenda.
Offer public funding to judicial nominees, now the practice in Maine and Arizona.
Require judicial candidates and special interest groups who give to them to immediately disclose campaign contributions (now technologically feasible). In 2000, Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, and Alabama saw 46 percent of judicial campaign ads paid for by independent groups.
Pay judges more. That should help attract more qualified individuals.
Establish performance evaluation commissions in states that hold "retention" elections. Information gathered by the commissions should be available in voter guides to help people make better decisions.
Such changes could prompt many honest, principled individuals who may be repelled by the myriad problems of running for office to seek a place on the bench.