Judicial selection process needs reform

According to a 2004 survey, judicial quality declines in states that use elections to select judges.

This presidential primary season, which has produced unprecedented voter turnout across the country, seems a fitting backdrop to a frank and necessary discussion about the erosion of judicial independence and impartiality in Minnesota. The U.S. Supreme Court case Republican Party of Minnesota v. White (2002) and the subsequent decision in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals (2005) announced that infringing on the political speech of candidates for judicial office violated the constitutional guarantees of the First Amendment.

In essence, these rulings ensured that judicial candidates will have the same rights as legislative candidates running for office, as far as soliciting money for their campaigns, seeking a political party endorsement and announcing their personal views on political issues to win popular support.

Consequently, instead of focusing solely on interpreting our constitution and state laws, judicial candidates may now consider their political views as an electoral asset, opening the door for special interest groups to infect the judicial process the way they have the legislative process.

The White decision has produced increasingly expensive judicial campaigns throughout the country. In 2002, on a national level, state Supreme Court candidates raised a combined total of $29 million during their campaigns. Just two years later that figure grew to $42 million.

Some in Minnesota believe that our courts are currently immune to this gathering storm, and question why we would bother fixing something that is not broken. However, we cannot ignore the facts. Just last year, the Wisconsin State Supreme Court race totaled $6 million, with special interest groups contributing the lions share.

Many see the fact that, in 2004, 19 out of 23 judicial candidates in Ramsey County ran uncontested as a sign that our system is simply a ticking time bomb waiting to be exploited by special interests.

In response to the White decision, former Governor Al Quie chaired the Citizen’s Commission for the Preservation of an Impartial Judiciary, with the purpose of finding solutions to preserve impartial and independent justice in Minnesota.

The Quie Commission proposed the following: the governor appoints a judge to office from a merit-based list of applicants and, once the judge completes one term in office, the public votes in a retention election system.

This type of system allows the voters to cast an up or down vote to determine whether a judge should be retained to serve additional terms in office. To guide the voters’ decision, performance evaluations for each candidate are provided to the general public.

The solutions of the Quie Commission echo what many in the academic and judicial world are saying must happen in order to retain an impartial and independent judiciary. According to a U.S. Chambers of Commerce survey conducted in 2004, judicial quality declines in states that simply use elections to select judges.

In her concurring opinion in the White decision, former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said, ” If the State has a problem with judicial impartiality, it is largely one the State brought upon itself by continuing the practice of popularly electing judges.” The clouds are gathering on the horizon; the time to reform our judicial selection process has come.

Skye Stauffer is a University student. Please send comments to [email protected]