An independent judiciary is an integral part of a well-functioning society. The judiciary acts as a check on the powers of both the legislature and the executive. In order to function effectively, judges must be free to decide cases based on the law rather than political considerations or popular will. While judges must be held accountable for their conduct, threatening removal for individual decisions is counterproductive and undermines the ability of judges to do their jobs.
In Pennsylvania, appellate judges are initially elected in partisan elections to ten year terms. After their terms
expire, they may stand for retention in uncontested, nonpartisan elections. Retention elections are an opportunity for the public to vote to retain judges based on their performance over the course of their tenure on the bench. Accordingly, judges are accountable to the voters and continue to serve at the will of the people.
However, retention should not be used as a weapon or threat to bully judges into ruling a certain way on specific cases. Judges are not politicians; they do not have constituencies, nor do they make decisions on individual cases based on political expediency. Their role is to act as a fair and impartial adjudicator. Threatening non-retention demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the judiciary, undermines the court’s ability to do its job, and does more harm than good.
Additionally, an independent judiciary must be free to make decisions without regard to popular opinion. Judges do not have constituents for a reason; in order to effectively do their jobs, judges have to focus on interpreting the law without regard to whether their decisions would appeal to the masses.
This is not to say that the people are not free to express their
dissatisfaction with the judiciary or individual decisions made by specific judges. However, the appellate process is the correct mechanism to address issues with individual decisions, not campaigning (or threatening to campaign) against retention.
Recently, a Tea Party affiliated PAC issued a press release “warn[ing] that it will organize to defeat Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Ron Castille, a Republican, and PA Supreme Court Justice Max Baer, a Democrat, in their respective 2013 retention races, if Voter ID is not implemented in the November, 2012 General Election.” Threats like this from any group undermine the foundation of our judicial system.
Retention is a tool to evaluate the performance of judges over the course of their term, not to bully them into deciding a case in a particular way. This remains true regardless of the group that is threatening non-retention or the subject matter of any particular case.