Mar 26 2015
In Response to Growing Influence of Money in Judicial Elections, Former Alabama Chief Justice Supports Merit Selection
This year, the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to decide whether state ethics rules can prohibit judicial candidates from personally soliciting campaign contributions. The case, Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar, could have major implications in some of the 33 states, like Pennsylvania, which have this prohibition in place. A ruling against the Florida Bar would effectively force judicial candidates around the country deeper into the world of political fundraising. Involving judges more deeply in campaign fund solicitation will likely further exacerbate issues of public trust in impartial, independent courts. This case should raise alarm: Should judges act as ordinary politicians soliciting campaign funds? Sue Bell Cobb, former Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, doesn’t think so.
In a recent Politico article, Justice Cobb, expressed her embarrassment at the idea that donors feel compelled to contribute to judicial campaigns in order to be served. According to Justice Cobb, “Judges are meant to be impartial. They’re supposed to apply the settled law against facts and evidence of the case before their court.” However, in a world where campaign dollars flow more and more freely, partisan elected courts tend to reflect more of the interests of whatever side has more money to spend. Further, partisan judicial elections focus more attention on the personal views of judicial candidates than, more importantly, how fairly they will uphold the law. These perceptions weigh heavily on the public trust of the courts and highlight the need for an alternative to judicial elections.
Justice Cobb advocates for the simple premise of fairness when considering judicial reform. To achieve fairness, she highlights merit selection as an attractive alternative to partisan elections. Merit selection removes the specter of campaign contributions from the courts and its ugly and embarrassing consequences to public trust and the judges themselves. Further, merit selection allows for the screening and evaluation of judicial candidates based solely on their qualifications while maintaining public accountability through a nonpartisan retention vote.
In Pennsylvania, with several high profile judicial elections on the horizon in 2015, the time is now to move forward with merit selection. The increasingly partisan climate surrounding judicial elections around the country, inflow of outside money, and potential neutering of ethics rules against judicial candidates soliciting campaign funds should raise alarm and needs to be addressed now. The best way to do this is to forego partisan elections altogether and adopt merit selection.