By Bill Johnson / May - June, 2011
MY HEAD SPUN WHEN I WENT to vote in the primary election and walked through a gauntlet of campaign workers handing out brochures for judicial candidates. There were many of them and I knew nothing about them. As a conscientious voter, I decided not to vote that day. I needed time to review the campaign literature and qualifications of these would-be judges. This, I learned, is a difficult task.
This was a new experience for me, since I came from a state where judges are appointed, not elected. After thinking about it, I decided that we may be better served by appointing judges, rather than electing them. Electing judges, it seems to me, amounts to a popularity contest without much regard for legitimate qualifications.
While I generally have faith in our collective decision-making ability, I don't think we are capable of judging some highly technical scientific or medical issues. Those may be best left to the experts.
In the same manner, I'm not sure we can responsibly judge the qualifications of judicial candidates. In my opinion, requisites for a good judge are as follows:
First, the candidate must have a good legal education. We can determine that from a resume.
Second, the candidate should have relevant experience. We can also determine this.
Third, the candidate must have demonstrated competence in legal matters. Now we run into trouble. Making such judgments requires analysis of the candidate's legal writings, clarity of mind, analytical ability, and logic. In this matter, we lack the time and legal training to reach a responsible conclusion, which takes some level of expertise or experience in the field.
Fourth, the candidate should have "judicial temperament" - the patience, personality and temperament to deal with people from all walks of life who come to the courtroom. The candidate should be able and willing to patiently explain legal principles and processes to potential jurors, witnesses and victims, and serve on the bench with a calm dignity and judicial demeanor. Without knowing these judicial candidates or watching them in action, it's impossible to judge their judicial temperament. That, I think, is better left to a panel of people who can investigate the candidate's reputation, character and demeanor.
Another factor of concern is the very nature of campaigning. It seems to lack dignity for judicial candidates and demeans the selection process. What can they promise? To be tough on criminals? The law is what it is.
Do we really want someone who campaigns as a "hanging judge" and then feels compelled to appear to be a hard-liner? There is legitimate fear of an elected judge feeling pressure from a lynch mob mentality. If there were a high-profile emotional case before a judge facing re-election, could the judge be affected by the public mood and demand for a certain outcome, regardless of evidence? Is an elected judge more likely to feel compelled to rule in favor of public opinion?
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