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Times Changing for Judicial Elections
By Damon Circosta
Published: Aug. 23, 2010
RALEIGH - There was an era in North Carolina when the surest way to win an election for judge was to spend time at the local courthouse. Getting to know the attorneys and chatting with the clerks was the extent of the campaign. In turn, the legal community would act as a sort of filter, vetting aspiring judges through recommendations to their friends.
Back before TV ads and glossy mailers ever made their way into judicial elections, it was the courthouse crowd that held sway. Their blessing would almost guarantee a victory at the polls.
The judicial community takes a great deal of pride in their role of electing judges, although there are a great deal of lawyers who think we ought not to be electing judges in the first place. Many have called for an appointment process similar to the federal judiciary. The debate between appointment and elections is as old as the republic, but almost everyone agrees that however we decide to select judges, we need to have competent and qualified members on the bench whose first allegiance is to the rule of law.
A new report from several national organizations says that the times are changing when it comes to judicial elections. “The New Politics of Judicial Elections, 2000-2009: Decade of Change” is the first comprehensive study of spending in court races over the past decade. It documents an explosion of money and the growing dominance of special interests in choosing state supreme court justices.
“In too many states, judicial elections are becoming political prizefights where partisans and special interests seek to install judges who will answer to them instead of the law and the Constitution,” former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor writes in an introduction to the report.
Here in North Carolina we might not have it perfect, but the report gives us high marks for our system. Beginning in 2004, judicial races became nonpartisan. Also that year we began using a system of public financing for some races. Both these measures were intended to protect the judiciary from the excessive fundraising and partisanship of other elections, and by most accounts they have been successful.
The job description for a judge is very different from other politicians. After a judge gets elected they aren’t supposed to craft the rules, but to serve more like an impartial umpire, calling the balls and strikes. It can be tough to serve as the unbiased ref if everyone thinks you came to the bench because your political party or a wealthy donor put you there.
Judicial elections, like most things, are increasingly complicated. Chatting up the courthouse crowd and spreading your campaign message through word of mouth is no longer enough to get elected in this increasingly populous state. More sophisticated campaign operatives are involved in the process and interests from both sides of the political spectrum are seeking to put judges on the bench who will answer to them.
The only way to make sure that these folks don’t hold sway over our justice system is to do our homework. A little research online and talking to any lawyers or others who work in the justice system are two easy steps to take. Above all, we must take our role as informed voters seriously. This means looking beyond the 30-second attack ads and slick campaign mailers.
It’s anyone’s guess what the future for judicial elections holds, but this national report makes clear that there are immense changes occurring. So long as we voters decide who will serve in our justice system, we must render our verdict thoughtfully.