Don't pass up historic opportunities

A few thoughts came to mind when I read about the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Caperton v. Massey this week. The case involved a West Virginia Supreme Court judge who refused to recuse himself from a trial, even though the chief executive of one of the litigants had spent $3 million to help the judge get elected. In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court found that due process requires a judge to recuse himself if large campaign contributions create the appearance of partiality.

Like Scarecrow at the Oxdown Gazette, I found the hackery of Chief Justice John Roberts’ dissenting opinion revealing.

Mostly I was shocked to learn from this New York Times article that judges are still elected in 39 states. It’s bad enough that money corrupts our elections for the legislative and executive branches. Judicial elections create opportunities for “legalized bribery” as well as incentives for judges to let public opinion unduly shape their interpretation of the law in high-profile cases.  

I agree with the Des Moines Register’s editorial board:

The fact that it is difficult, if not impossible, to draw an ethical distinction between a bribe and a campaign contribution is a strong argument for why judges should not be elected. Period.

Iowa voters did away with judicial elections by approving an amendment to the state constitution in 1962. The governor appoints judges at all levels. The public has input through nominating commissions that evaluate potential appointees before forwarding a short list to the governor. In addition, judges can be removed either by the Iowa Supreme Court for disability or good cause, or by the voters through periodic retention elections.

We are fortunate that Iowans recognized the wisdom of scrapping judicial elections when the constitutional amendment was on the ballot. This page on the website of the American Judicature Society lists failed judicial reform efforts in numerous other states. As you can see, state legislators and voters have rejected similar proposals despite years of hard work by reform advocates.

Let this be a lesson for policy-makers at all levels to seize the chance to make big changes for the better, such as the currently favorable environment for health care reform. Opportunities to ditch deeply flawed but entrenched systems don’t come around every year, every election cycle or even every decade.

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