The April 10 Economist included a brief article noting the issues regarding elected state court judges, and its text is set out below as a fair use. According to the article, some or all of the judges are elected in 39 of the United States.This topic has been debated for years, but little has changed except that more and more money is being spent on judicial elections. The article has specifics on the latter.
I would add three observations to the debate; the first one comes from the judge I clerked for, Howard C. Ryan, who was an elected state court judge. His point was a pragmatic one, which is that reformers need to be flexible in their proposed solutions and cannot expect to hit a “home run” on the first try. For example, the “reform” solution that works for the hundreds or thousands of judges in Cook County, Illinois probably will not work for a “downstate” Illinois county with only a handful of judges and perhaps only dozens of lawyers. Why? Because some reform proposals aimed at Cook County called for panels of X lawyers, with X being a small number in Cook County but an unattainable number in some farming counties with modest numbers of lawyers and judges. (During my clerkship way back in 1983, the issue was somewhat “hot” in Illinois and so Judge Ryan, as a “downstate” judge, explained to us some of the very real differences between Cook County courts and the courts in the rest of the state. In my opinion, he’s absolutely correct that one size does not fit all. The Judge, by the way, also was open-minded. Indeed, to further the analysis, he asked me to research and present him with a memo summarizing how various nations around the world create their judiciary.)
Second, there is in my view much merit to ensuring that many of our appellate judges have spent meaningful time as trial judges. Trial courts are dynamic places with things said and unsaid because of the exigencies of the moment and many other factors. When an appellate court gathers to decide cases, it is I think important that there are some judges in the room who have a feel for the what is really “harmless error,” and the pressures of long trial days. This is not to suggest creating a black letter rule requiring trial court experience – I join with those who say that it would be a grave mistake to exclude all academics, nor do we want to exclude the lawyers who never worked as judges but spent years trying cases, and so know the nature of trials.
Third, there is the question of why the topic has produced so little substantive debate (as opposed to sound bites and posturing), and so little meaningful change. On this topic, I commend to all Robert Reich’s newest book: Supercapitalism. It’s an insightful look at where we as a nation are today in terms of the political process. It’s also refreshing to read a book with lots of facts, footnotes to the sources, and an absence of spin.
Life, liberty and the pursuit of a fair judiciary
First, they have become bitter contests. In 2006 91% of Supreme Court elections featured television advertisements, up from 22% in 2000, according to New York University’s Brennan Centre. Second, the war over tort, or liability, reform has turned judicial elections into a nasty battlefield–especially in those states where state Supreme Court justices are directly elected. Karl Rove, once George Bush’s Svengali, ascended in part by helping Texas businessmen fight trial lawyers for control of that state’s highest court. The most expensive judicial race in America’s history, a $9.3m fight in 2004, saw tort interests pour money into rival campaigns for a seat on the Illinois Supreme Court.
In Wisconsin the signs are troubling. The state’s new era of judicial elections began last year. A series of rulings had galvanised corporate leaders, explains James Buchen of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC), the state’s business lobby. In one ruling in 2005, the Supreme Court overturned the state’s caps on medical-malpractice cases. In another, the court ruled that a plaintiff could sue several manufacturers when he did not know which (if any) had caused him injury.
In 2007 groups from all sides poured cash into a state Supreme Court race, spending $5.8m. In this month’s election one estimate is that the candidates together raised about $1m (Mr Butler outspent Mr Gableman), while outside groups such as WMC and the teachers’ union spent more than $4.5m.
This year’s flood of money might have drawn less censure if it had spurred a proper debate on judicial philosophy. It didn’t. Mr Gableman’s campaign produced an advertisement suggesting that Mr Butler, a black man, had helped free a black rapist. An advertisement supporting Mr Butler claimed that Mr Gableman was soft on paedophiles. Even WMC’s advertisements were about crime. Regardless of the tenor of the campaign, money may be undermining faith in the court. A recent poll conducted for Justice at Stake, a group devoted to judicial independence, found that 78% of respondents in Wisconsin believe campaign contributions influence judges’ rulings.
The question is whether to change the new dispensation and, if so, how? Comprehensive legal reform might help keep the tort war from seeping into judicial elections. But the elections themselves are unlikely to be scrapped. More feasible would be to pass reforms, such as public financing for campaigns or stricter rules to prevent conflicts of interest. In Wisconsin politicians and Supreme Court judges all work beneath the state capitol’s giant dome. It is getting hard to tell the difference between them. “