As we make our case for reforming the way Pennsylvania selects its appellate judges, we’ve consistently tried to explain the things that (should) make judges different from politicians. Legislative and executive positions are political by design. Holders of those offices are elected in partisan contests, running on a political platform, with clearly defined goals in mind once they win. They win votes because of the actions they promise to take once in office, and are accountable for those promises when running for re-election.
Judges, by contrast, are supposed to be impartial. They’re supposed to approach each case without prejudice, to make decisions based on the law and the facts at hand, rather than political ideology, or even the will of the majority. The law seeks to protect the rights of parties, even if the majority would prefer otherwise. In those cases, judges should be able to make the unpopular decisions, without having to worry about their jobs.
Unfortunately, judges in many states have to be successful at the polls before they can even reach the bench. An article from the magazine Campaigns and Elections shows that the strategists who help politicians raise money and stump for votes have definitely started to pay attention.
Joseph Cozzolino, president of Judicial Campaign Consultants, says that the contentious judicial election in Wisconsin is of a piece with a trend he has noticed, even in non-partisan elections, toward increased participation by outside partisan groups. Indeed, he routinely advises judicial candidates to position themselves as a partisan candidate would in any other election by brushing up on the issues driving the political debate and emphasizing their personal background rather than professional history in biographical spots.
“Very often in judicial races, people try to portray themselves as a skilled lawyer, but people are not always doing an analysis of your lawyering background so much as looking at the same issues that you would for non-judicial races,” says Cozzolino. “You’ve got to come across as aware and sensitive, even in judicial races.”
You’d be hard-pressed to find a tidier summation of why electing judges is antithetical to the ideal of an impartial and unbiased judiciary. Political skills and campaign fundraising ability are what gets politicians elected. How is the public supposed to believe that elected judges can simply put all those considerations aside once they’ve been sworn in?
The races to fill appellate court seats are becoming increasingly partisan, marked by outrageous advertising and huge increases in campaign spending. The result is a judiciary that’s tainted with the perception of bias. The decisions of even the most impartial judge are measured against campaign rhetoric and lists of donors, and the public’s faith in the fairness of the courts continues to erode.
If we want to restore public confidence in Pennsylvania’s appellate judges, we need to keep them from having to be politicians in the first place; get them out of the fundraising game, and let them reach the bench on the basis of their ability and experience. We think it’s a better way to select appellate judges, and that’s why we’re working to bring Merit Selection to Pennsylvania’s appellate courts.
Tags: judicial elections