Note: This blog draws in part on my experiences and observations interviewing political figures, writers, and analysts for "The Campbell Conversations" on WRVO. To hear past interviews I refer to in these posts, please go to the show's website. The views expressed here are solely my own, and do not represent Syracuse University, the Campbell Institute, or the WRVO Stations.

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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Hollow Judicial Elections?

This November we'll reprise the curious American tradition of electing judges.  Most other western nations, such as Britain, use nonpartisan or bipartisan panels of legal experts to recommend or fill these posts.  On balance, I think this is probably the better way to go, despite its apparent non-democratic character.

The reason?  The information that a citizen can gather about the candidates is horribly thin, and thus these races usually turn into name-recognition contests or party-affiliation affairs--funded by private donations--in which voters have no real clue what they're doing.

The judicial candidates don't help matters.  They are loath to associate any kind of pattern of decision-making with their party affiliation, and they all tend to run on the following platform:  I'm honest, I'm tough on criminals, and I'm caring toward families.  As if their opponents are running on a platform of lying, promoting crime, and beating up children. 

The candidates will also share photos of themselves with their spouse, two children, and a dog.  (Why never a cat?  I guess because, at the end of the day, you can't trust a cat.  Actually, I have a cat you can trust, but to be honest he's pretty dumb.  I digress.)

Even with the advent of the Internet, it's tough to find out anything substantive about the candidates.  Tom Buckel, a local candidate for State Supreme Court Judge, comes close, however.  He's got some information on his website about how he intends to limit the influence of campaign contributions, by pledging to recuse himself from cases where contributors are involved.  He's also posted his "judicial philosophy," but this is in essence a commitment to be fair, reasonable and competent.  It's not a set of issue positions.

To gather the information that one would need in order to made a good decision among the candidates, a voter would have to know the candidates personally, or spend time with them as they reason through legal conflicts and react to legal challenges, or read the things that they've written before they announced their candidacies.  That's just not realistic on a mass scale. 

But none of this is meant to suggest that it doesn't matter who occupies these positions.  They are crucial for a healthy society and a functioning democracy.  And the races are not tweedle-dee versus tweedle-dum.  It's just that our method of making the choice does not promote democratic aims.

I think I'll try to get at least one set of judicial candidates on The Campbell Conversations this fall, to see if it's possible to have a substantive discussion in which the candidates will meaningfully disagree with each other.  It will be an interesting experiment, if nothing else. 

Until then, look for the Labrador Retriever.


Mark B said...

I could not disagree more. While elections are clearly an imperfect method of putting judges on the bench, deferring to cronyism and political patronage are worse. We have only to look here in Onondaga County to see the problem. New York, with its party selection nomination process for judges is a shame and a disgrace. What is being offered in this post is no different.

Grant Reeher said...


Thanks for the comment. Actually, I think your objection to the party nominating process underlines my point and expands it. Although, admittedly, a positive argument would require me to develop an alternative proposal much more fully than I did in the post, the experience in many other Western countries, using expert panels, suggests that what you describe is not the necessary result of moving away from an election.

How we currently do things in this area is really out of step with almost all other nations. It's possible that we alone have this right, but if nothing else it's worth a serious rethink.

I've had a couple discussions with colleagues and friends since the post, and I've decided I want to try to get a set of judicial candidates on the program, so stay tuned!

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