Sep 10 2014
An editorial by Brent Larkin at the Northeast Ohio Media Group laments the state of the judicial election process in Ohio. He writes about the bottom-of-the-ballot matchup between two Cuyahoga County Common Pleas candidates with near-“royal” names.
McMonagle vs. Gallagher. In the red corner, the son of the incumbent, the beneficiary of a 15-1 McMonagle family record in Ohio judicial elections dating back to 1966. In the blue corner, the niece of an appellate judge in the Ohio’s 8th district, based in Cleveland. In fact, the Gallagher name is so well known and liked in that district that fully 25% of the judges on the bench there share the last name. That’s three out of twelve , including two Eileen Gallaghers. Bushes, Kennedys – step aside.
Larkin’s point is not that this is the premier race of the 2014 political season. On the contrary, voters in Cuyahoga County have 21 other races to decide before they even reach this one on their ballots. There are 59 elected judgeships in the county – a lot for busy voters to keep track of. But when they get to the polls, Larkin fears, “few things matter less to the electorate than qualification,” and “nothing matters more to them than a candidate’s last name.”
This isn’t a unique problem to Ohio, of course. Just look at Pennsylvania. Our judges are often elected for arbitrary reasons – whether it is because of their last names, party affiliations, connections to the right people, or the resources in their campaign coffers. This leads to judges that are often under-qualified or unqualified because of a system that thrusts them into roles of immense power over the day-to-day lives of citizens.
Of course, there are plenty of judges who are worthy of the bench. But all too often voters lack the information to ask the right questions. How much experience does a judicial candidate have? What are their stances on important issues? Do they display the work ethic, efficiency, temperament, and respect for the law that a successful and fair judge needs?
The system of electing judges in Pennsylvania perpetuates low-information, “sound-bite” voting and rewards many of the candidates that would be the most burdened if information about them were to come to light, whether to voters or to an independent commission. Sunlight, as the saying goes, is the best of disinfectants.
The best way to elect an independent and impartial judiciary in Pennsylvania is to reward candidates based on merit, not on a wildcard such as last name. Public trust in the judiciary is crucial, and low-turnout elections don’t usually produce judges worthy of the confidence of the citizenry.