Another argument against electing judges

Cross-posted at dKos

The front-page story on today's Charlotte Observer contains a disturbing story about two judges here in Charlotte. I've read this twice in print and once online, and I keep coming to the same conclusion--judges in North Carolina should be appointed based on merit, not elected.

Mecklenburg Chief District Judge Lisa Bell has taken $50,000 in contributions since first running for a judgeship in 1998 (she's been chief judge since 2008)--most of them from lawyers. One of her colleagues, Becky Tin, has gotten roughly the same amount since her first campaign in 2002. Lawyers from James, McElroy and Diehl, one of Charlotte's more aggressive firms, have given them each donations totaling over $2,500. Those amounts alone provide ready-made ammo for bias accusations. The problem is that the judges' critics dimply don't hold up under scrutiny.

Tin has been under fire from Lisa Pennington, a child psychologist who lost custody of her two kids back in 2008. Her ex-husband is represented by the Diehl firm.

Pennington lost custody of her sons in Tin's courtroom in a special court called the complex domestic litigation track. Created in 2007, the court was designed for long or complicated divorce and child custody cases.

Mecklenburg's regular district court isn't set up to handle lengthy trials, and legal experts say such special-purpose courts are common.

As the only judge assigned to the special court, Tin was bound to draw detractors, some lawyers say, because she presided over some of Mecklenburg's highest-conflict cases.

Pennington claimed that Tin was biased toward the Diehl firm, in part because of the numerous contributions she's gotten from its lawyers. However, according to a separate story, Pennington has no credibility whatsoever. The police found Pennington's allegations were unfounded, and the Department of Social Services actually found that Pennington herself was guilty of neglect. Tin's ruling found that Pennington and her boyfriend had coached her sons to make the allegations--something which, to my mind, is grounds for Pennington herself to be brought up on charges of moral turpitude.

To my mind, we wouldn't even be having this discussion if judges were appointed rather than elected. By definition, the idea of having judges run in elections--even if they're nonpartisan--limits their independence. It also creates the appearance of bias even when no bias exists at all.

Tags: 

Comments

except...

....then who does the appointing? A Senator, Governor, Representative, etc. who might be just as tied to the money and/or then be accused of peddling influence for a judgeship?

I don't think there is any really great way to deal with getting Judges without there being some sorts of issues, problems or allegations of things not working well. But having political appointments to the bench seems much more problematic to the administration of justice than having the voters decide. If it is a political appointment, it is a political process. And I would argue that the political process would cause more harm than the process of voting. God, Buddha, Y_W_H, help us if we had confirmation hearings in the NC Senate for each and every District Court judge position in the 100 counties. Talk about a LOT of hearings and a huge (IMHO) waste of taxpayers' dollars.

I say let the voters decide. It has worked pretty good so far, even with a few glitches from time to time.

Missing the Point on Judges

If judges are elected or appointed is not as important as the citiizen's access to MEANINGFUL redress after the fact. The Judicial Standards Commission should be overhauled to provide an avenue to sanction judges that clearly violate the law. As is, the commission seeks to give judges a pass on almost any allegation. If steps were made to tear the good ole boy tendency out of the commission, it would be irrelevant how the judge got there; and focus more on if he or she should stay.

An alternative, maybe.

This proposal has no right side, only a lot of reasons why this or that process would be at risk. However, there is another version of both processes that may get rid of some of the drawbacks.
Suppose judges were elected every(blank)years by the people and ability to run was based on a petition signed by the voters in a minimum number of signatures and when approved by the Secretary of State, the state would provide $10,000(just an amount, could be more or less)for that candidate, be they incumbunt or newcomer, that is all they could spend on their election campaign. No personal or corporate contributions could be used.
If the state or US Supreme Court stepped in, NC could use the Arizona model, that being if the court enforced private contributions as free speech, if a candidate received $500.00 from a benefactor, the state would match that for the other side and pretty soon, it would become evident to anyone beating the bushes for contributions that they are not only raising money for themselves, but also for their opponent and it would thus be a zero sum game.

Fritz Pardue

Make them partisan?

Or, perhaps, we could allow judges to run on party lines? How many North Carolina voters are you willing to bet actually know who they're voting for when they vote for judicial offices?

If judges were allowed to run along partisan lines, that would at least give most people a good idea about a particular judge's principles and world view. Right now, most voters are left to wonder, with most either choosing whichever name they recognize most or doing eeny-meany-miny-moe guessing.