Out of court

Thursday, June 10, 2010


Traditionally American courts have been more independent from politics than the other two branches of government. This is so despite judges having to run for office in many states. Although in all federal courts and in some states judges are appointed, in a number of other states, such as Washington, judges at all levels—municipal on up to the state’s Supreme Court—are elected..

Over the years in Washington state, judges’ elections have become more expensive and a bit more political. Some of our Supreme Court races are shaping up to be more of a left v. right type than previously. On the other hand, voters tend not to be well informed about judges’ politics, so that candidates with common last names, such a Johnson, have been able to exploit that..

But that’s nothing compared to the threat to judicial independence that San Diego County in California went through recently. There, a slate of four Christian lawyers, who vowed to be God’s ambassadors, ran against four sitting and well-respected judges. This slate was backed by a group of pastors, gun enthusiasts, and opponents of abortion and same sex marriage. (Can anyone explain why gun lovers and devout Christians band together? Does the NRA contribute to churches?) Luckily, the voters of San Diego County saw through this assault on the judiciary and voted to keep their independent judges in office just this week..

This may not be the last we see of such electoral politics. Such tactics might succeed better in more rural counties or even in Spokane County, where such interest groups might see this as a way of electing judges more inclined to their way of thinking. And that’s what is most disturbing. I am avowed liberal, but I would oppose the ACLU putting together a slate of judges. As a lawyer, I don’t want to be in any judge’s court who appealed to any interest group’s ‘way of thinking..

To be effective, fair and impartial, judges have to be open minded and not beholden to a special interest’s ‘way of thinking.’ Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has thrown out laws limiting how much corporations can give to political candidates, another threat is for a corporate slates of judges to emerge. What if Boeing or Microsoft put together such a slate? Their 'way of thinking' is mostly governed by dollars and cents. Imagine trying to get a fair trial if you sue them!

The only ‘way of thinking’ a judge must follow is to uphold the Constitution and to interpret the laws passed by the legislature and enforced by the executive. Perhaps I am being a bit unrealistic to think that judge's decisions are apolitical. Yet, if some other ‘way of thinking’ intruded, any decision by that judge would be suspect, and certainly not better..

1 comment: