Much discussion was had last year about the selection of judges in Virginia, particularly surrounding the selection in Norfolk. This year, the conversation has been a little under the radar but continues nonetheless. Judges are selected by the General Assembly and as this article points out, the process is far from being non-political.
Sunday’s Parade Magazine featured an article by retired Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor. She expresses concern about the pressure being put on our judiciary:
The judiciary currently is experiencing unprecedented pressure from interest groups to make decisions that are based on politics…the vast majority of law is state law. Ninety-five percent of litigation takes place in state courts.
I was struck by that figure: 95%! With all of the emphasis on the US Supreme Court and its nominees, most of the litigation is going on at the state level – right under our noses – and I doubt if most people could name more than one or two local judges, much less than the members of the VA Supreme Court. Further proof that all politics is local. O’Connor continues:
Political pressure is a big problem in a number of our state courts. More than 89% of state judges go through some form of election process. Many of these elections recently have become full-fledged political battles, fueled by growing sums of money spent by candidates and special-interest groups to attack, defend and counterattack.
I have often wondered how the election of judges worked. As a matter of fact, I asked an elected judge from New Mexico who I met last year at a Richardson event this very question. He didn’t have a problem with it. Perhaps what O’Connor describes has not made it to New Mexico yet.
O’Connor is no fan of elected judges, and after reading the article, neither am I. I’m no fan of the current system in place in Virginia, either. O’Connor offers a suggestion: select based on merit. What a radical concept!
Under this plan, currently used in states such as Colorado and Nebraska, an independent commission of knowledgeable citizens recommends candidates to the governor, who appoints one of them as judge. After several years on the bench, the judge’s name is submitted to the electorate, who vote on whether he should keep his position. This method decreases the importance of money and politics in the process while still allowing voter input on retaining each judge.
This sounds like a very workable solution. After all, at the end of the day, we need a fair and impartial judiciary. This is something our legislature should consider.