State Judicial Elections

Selections from the Fair Courts e-lert May 28, 2010, published by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

State Judicial Elections
1. Retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor continues to advocate for states to replace contested judicial elections with merit selection systems. In an op-ed appearing in the New York Times, O’Connor urges individuals to pay attention to the selection of state court judges because “In too many states, citizens are being shortchanged by the way [state court judges] are chosen . . . . When you enter one of these courtrooms, the last thing you want to worry about is whether the judge is more accountable to a campaign contributor or an ideological group than to the law.”

Sandra Day O’Connor, Take Justice Off the Ballot, New York Times, May 21, 2010.

2. Sandra Day O’Connor is not the only Justice to argue that judicial elections damage public trust in impartial justice. The Wisconsin State Journal cites Justice John Paul Steven’s criticism of the practice of electing state judges as evidence that “momentum is growing for reform in which justices are selected for their experience and independence, not for their ability to raise money, court the special interests and charm voters.” At a legal conference in Columbus, Ohio, Stevens discussed a case he heard while sitting on the federal appeals court. Stevens told conference attendees that he remembered thinking, “‘I have life tenure.’ . . . So unlike the Wisconsin justices who originally heard the case, he didn’t have to worry about voters punishing him if his decision was unpopular.” Steven’s position – “to throw out the conviction because [the defendant] had not been given due process” – was indeed extremely unpopular, but ultimately affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Editorial, Stevens Offers Stark Example, Wisconsin State Journal May 25, 2010.

3. According to the Union Tribune, although incumbent judges rarely face challenges, the San Diego Superior Court has become an unexpected judicial battleground. The Union Tribune reports that a group named Better Courts Now is targeting four sitting judges in San Diego in an attempt to replace them with judges who reflect the group’s more conservative stances on gay marriage and abortion. “The challengers ‘all say they’re running in large part to give voters a voice on who sits on the bench’. . . and they advocate that judges should uphold laws passed by elected legislatures and not ‘make the law.’ One challenged incumbent decried the challenge, however, stating that “Better Courts Now adds both a partisan and ‘values issue’ to the race for judge.”

Greg Moran, ‘Moral Vote’ Group Targets Four Judicial Seats, Union-Tribune, May 22, 2010.

4. “‘I’ve never seen this kind of campaigning for appellate judicial office before, never,’ said retired Court of Appeals Judge Joseph Alarid,” about the fractious primary race between Dennis Montoya and Judge Linda M. Vanzi for Vanzi’s seat on the New Mexico Court of Appeals. Two of Vanzi’s campaign mailings call attention to Montoya’s “documented record of unethical behavior,” about which Vanzi claims firsthand knowledge. Before Gov. Bill Richardson appointed Vanzi to the Court of Appeals in October 2008, Vanzi was a state district judge in Albuquerque. Vanzi reported Montoya to the state Supreme Court’s disciplinary board in 2008. According to the Albuquerque Journal, “Just last month, the board charged Montoya with a pattern of misconduct in several legal actions. . . The board also says it is investigating nine additional misconduct complaints against Montoya, related to other cases. The disciplinary panel is asking the state Supreme Court to suspend Montoya while the investigations are under way. The high court has scheduled a hearing for June 2, the day after the primary election.”

Deborah Baker, Charges Fly In Appeals Court Race; Incumbent Calls Rivalry ‘Bizarre,’ Albuquerque Journal, May 23, 2010.

5. California Supreme Court Justice Ming Chin testified last week before the Assembly Judiciary Committee at a hearing entitled “Judicial Elections in California: Threats to the Perception of Fairness.” According to Legal Pad, Justice Chin, who chairs the Commission for Impartial Courts, remarked that “he was ‘getting closer’ to opposing judicial elections completely. ‘The more that I hear about what’s going on across the country, the more concerned I am.'”

Cheryl Miller, Judicial Elections- A Race to the Bottom?, Legal Pad, May 18, 2010.

6. Arkansas Secretary of State Charlie Daniels reported that turnout for the May 18 Preferential Primary and Nonpartisan Judicial General Election was the highest that Arkansas has seen in a party primary since 1994, not counting 2008s presidential primary. KARK 4 News notes that “[p]arty primaries generally garner only about a third of the voter participation seen in general elections, but this year’s primary and judicial elections were especially interesting to voters because of the sheer volume of candidates running for a good number of open seats.”

Sec. Daniels Reports 29% Preliminary Statewide Turnout for 2010 Preferential Primary and Nonpartisan Judicial Election, KARK 4 News, May 21, 2010.

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