(Chuck Muth) – As the saying goes, democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others. Ditto electing judges.
The Legislature has put a question (Question 1) on the ballot this year which would take away the citizens’ right to vote on the judges who will rule over them. Instead, a panel of lawyers would get together and decide which three from among them should be recommended to the governor for appointment. From that point on, the judge would only face a retention vote in the future.
This will supposedly take the politics and money out of judicial races. Fat chance. Actually, no chance. All it will really do is take citizens out of judicial races.
And while opponents of elections love to cite Elizabeth Halvorsen to buttress their argument against allowing the great unwashed to vote for judges, consider the opposite example of District Court Judge Susan Johnson.
Three times, Johnson was nominated as one of three finalists sent to the Governor for appointment to fill a vacancy in District Court. Three times, the Governor selected someone else. So Johnson ran for a judicial seat and was overwhelmingly elected by the voters.
When she ran for re-election, Johnson drew more votes than any other candidate for any office in Clark County. She was endorsed in both elections by both the Las Vegas Review Journal and the Las Vegas Sun and earns sky-high ratings in the RJ’s judicial evaluations.
Judge Johnson has also been a major force in open government and was a vocal opponent of the recent attempt by the Clark County District Court’s Chief Judge Art Ritchie to hire a lobbyist, Moose Arberry, at taxpayer cost.
Without voters, Susan Johnson would still be an attorney, serving only her clients. Thanks to judicial elections, we now have this top-tier legal mind as a judge.
Yes, voters can make mistakes. But voters also move quickly to remedy those errors. In fact, remember that voters rejected Halverson in a primary long before the Judicial Ethics Committee acted against her.
In theory, this new “appointment” system will take the money out of the process. But at best it will replace the money with “juice” – and we ain’t talkin’ about OJ here.
How does that serve our citizens, assuming that this fix will, in fact, remove money from judicial campaigns? We can all contribute to worthy candidates, but only a small minority of trial lawyers and other insiders will have any input into a selection process. An appointment system will be all about who you know.
In addition, an unintended consequence of this method of appointing judges is that it could, in fact, bring more money into judicial campaigns.
Third parties would still be able to mount campaigns against judges whose rulings they do not like. Will judges simply sit still and not run campaigns for their retention, even against well-funded third-party groups? Or will all judges be soliciting contributions in order to run campaigns to ensure their retention?
The assumption on the part of proponents of the appointment process appears to be that, once appointed, judges can safely coast to positive retention votes, year after year, without worrying that voters will be able to mount campaigns to remove even the incompetent from office. And they may be right, which is a complete disservice to our state.
Or proponents may recognize that even if one judge is removed from office by voters, they can simply replace that judge with another one who would rule the same way on issues. They may rely on voters catching on quickly that even a vote to remove a bad judge will simply result in another face above the robe, with no discernable difference in judicial performance.
And the Susan Johnsons of the legal community will remain shut out of the system.
Thanks, but no thanks. Judicial elections are the worst way to select judges….except for all the others. Vote “Hell, No!” on Question 1.