Should Judges be Elected?

Capitol Ideas asks an important question that I don’t think gets asked often enough:

Being an accredited member of the Fourth Estate gives us a bit more insight into judicial candidates than most. But we still can’t help but feel like we’re holding our breath a bit when we enter the voting booth.

And if we feel this way, we have to imagine that many Pennsylvanians feel equally bewildered. And this, of course, leads us to wonder (particularly after the pugilistic state Supreme Court campaign we’ve just witnessed) whether electing judges is such a good idea.

I’ve longed complained that voters really do not have enough information to make informed judgements about judges. I follow this stuff pretty closely, and even I am pulling the lever based on a few criteria I might be able to pick up here and there. I generally will avoid voting in elections where I am just horribly ignorant, like school board elections, which I leave for people with kids (as long as I’m not pissed off about something).

But I also do think that judges who work at a more local level should be accountable to the public they serve. If I got to unilaterally change the system, I’d probably keep district judges elected, but appellate judges should be appointed, with the advise and consent of the PA Senate, just like the feds do it. When it comes to the matter of administering the law, I have little problem with elected judges, but those who get to decide what the law is ought to be a bit more insulated from the political process.

The other big question is whether to allow the people to recall an appellate judge. The judge isn’t really running in an election, per se, so much as asking voters at some determined interval whether they think the judge should be retained. I would probably not have much objection to this, but it gives me pause to think that it might make appellate judges wary of making correct, but politically unpopular decisions. I would probably want to see that subject to a super majority requirement for recalling an appellate judge.

5 thoughts on “Should Judges be Elected?”

  1. Jefferson hated the way the US court system was structured with non-elected judges appointed to indefinite lengths. He considered those judges little more than an unaccountable legal aristocracy.

    Regular elections may be fine for local offices. Appointments are ok for some of the higher offices but they ought to be appointed for terms of long but definite lengths.

  2. I think judges at higher levels should be appointed, but subject to electoral recall at fairly long intervals – like 10 years or so.

    California implemented this system, and it allowed the voters to get rid of Rose Bird and a few others of the most leftist jurists the world had ever seen. Much better than the current federal system, where judges are absolutely immune from anything except impeachment for High Crimes and Misdemeanors (and then able to get elected to Congress).

  3. I am a big support of retention elections. To a large degree, it balances out the spite of the minority with uninformed voters. Rarely is a judge ever voted out, but it can happen on occasion when there is a real uprising. I was proud to let my high page rank in search results to a campaign in Utah. She was nuts, and before I posted about it, I did digging to find that even many in the legal community thought she was acting inappropriately in her courtroom and with her power as a judge. I appreciate the people having a “reset” button for the appointments when elected leaders let us down with piss poor decisions.

  4. Some sort of voter mechanism’s important. NJ has what they proudly describe as an “independent judiciary” of appointee judges who do not answer directly to the people, and we see the mess that has lead to: blatant judicial activism, legislating from the bench, and statewide collusion to ignore black and white elements of statutes.

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