Thursday, February 28, 2008
Parade Magazine interviews Justice Sandra Day O'Connor about the influence money and politics has on judges and the rule of law. Justice O'Connor expresses concern and hope. She says that:
[O]ur judicial system has safeguards to ensure consistency and preservation of the law. But it is threatened when judges ignore settled law and make decisions according to personal or public preferences.
The judiciary currently is experiencing unprecedented pressure from interest groups to make decisions that are based on politics. In Washington, D.C., we hear a lot about federal judges, and they have a critical role in upholding the Constitution. But having been a state judge and a state legislator, I know that the vast majority of law is state law. Ninety-five percent of litigation takes place in state courts. Many legal issues are primarily decided there, including divorce, property rights, employment law, product liability and medical malpractice.
Political pressure is a big problem in a number of our state courts. More than 89% of state judges go through some form of election process. Many of these elections recently have become full-fledged political battles, fueled by growing sums of money spent by candidates and special-interest groups to attack, defend and counterattack.
. . .
When so much money goes into influencing the outcome of a judicial election, it is hard to have faith that we are selecting judges who are fair and impartial. If I could do one thing to solve this problem, it would be to convince the states that select judges through partisan elections—that is, when a Democrat and Republican run against one another—to switch to merit selection instead. Under this plan, currently used in states such as Colorado and Nebraska, an independent commission of knowledgeable citizens recommends candidates to the governor, who appoints one of them as judge. After several years on the bench, the judge’s name is submitted to the electorate, who vote on whether he should keep his position. This method decreases the importance of money and politics in the process while still allowing voter input on retaining each judge.
I believe the long-term solution to the politicization of the judiciary process is education. Children, voters, policymakers and lawyers all should be informed about the importance of a fair, impartial judiciary. Judges should write their opinions in plain English so that the public can understand what the law is.
See Parade Article for full story.