Get To Know Your Judicial Candidates

How did that judge ever get elected?  It seems like I’ve heard that question a million times.  If you’ve ever read about a ridiculous lawsuit that a judge refused to dismiss and wondered how that judge got on the bench, you’re not alone.

Judicial elections are a mystery to many of us, but a bad judge can wreak havoc on the lives of innocent people, on communities and even on our economy, so it’s important for each of us to get to know our judges as well as the men and women who want to be our judges.   There’s an old adage that “what you don’t know might hurt you,” and that’s certainly true of judicial elections.

While 39 of the 50 states use some form of election to choose judges, relatively few voters cast ballots for judicial candidates when compared with candidates for other offices like governor and president.  Many pundits argue that voter apathy is the main reason, but I’m convinced that the biggest reason is many voters just don’t know the candidates – despite all the money being spent on elections these days.

Unfortunately, there isn’t one national “clearinghouse” of information about judges that one can use as a reference guide to become an informed voter.  However, there is a good place to start that you might never have heard about, so I would like to share that with you.

Judgepedia

You’ve probably heard about Wikipedia, the online “encyclopedia” of information about a wide range of issues, but have you ever heard of Judgepedia?  If you want to learn more about how judges in your state are elected and who is running for seats on the bench (at least on the top courts in your state), Judgepedia can be a good place to start.

Many lawyers and political insiders know about this site, but you should, too.  It doesn’t rate or evaluate judges, but it provides information about sitting judges and candidates and often includes links to groups who do rate judges and candidates.

To find out who is running in your state, click here.  That web page provides the most complete list of state Supreme Court elections I’ve seen anywhere, but it’s not the only source you should use.  Also check this site.  That page links up with a site that is specific to your state.  For even more cross-referencing, go to Judgepedia’s search box and type in the name of your state followed by this: judicial elections, 2010.  See here for an example.

Once you are familiar with the names of candidates who are running for judge or justice in 2010, use a search engine like Google to find out who has endorsed the candidate.  Type in the candidate’s name and “endorsed by” as a start.  Also, find out if the candidate has a web site.  On top of this, you may be able to use the website of your state department responsible for elections to find out who the candidates’ largest contributors are, too.

As the gatekeepers to the civil justice system in America, judges have incredible power.  As a voter, you have a lot of power, too.  If you don’t use that power, others will, and their choice for judge many leave you wondering, “how did that judge ever get elected?”

New Report Sheds Light On $45M Effort To Abolish Judicial Elections

An editorial writer for the Detroit News posed an excellent question about judges this week and then gave us something to chew on: “Think you should have the right to vote for judges?  A lot of people think you shouldn’t.  And they are willing to spend a lot of money to take that right away from you.”

Jeffrey Hadden has been watching the politics of judicial appointments for 40 years, and in his most recent column, he discusses a new report released by the American Justice Partnership.  His column — and the new report — are worth your attention.

According to “Justice Hijacked: The $45 Million Campaign (And Counting) to Abolish Judicial Elections and Reshape America’s Courts,” billionaire George Soros’ Open Society Institute has contributed at least that amount of money over the past ten years to fund a campaign that encourages the appointment of judges over the democratic process of electing them.

Judicial elections vs. judicial appointments is a hot topic in the legal community, and there is disagreement about which process is best…even among those who are leading the charge for tort reform and ending lawsuit abuse.  Hadden is a conservative writer but says he used to favor a system where judges are appointed and then run in an election to retain their seat.  However, he says he’s changed his mind.   Ultimately, his belief, and one shared by many legal reformers, is that the advantages of having judges answer to the public outweigh the disadvantages.

What do you think? A lot of people talk about frivolous lawsuits, and virtually all of us laugh at the outrageous ones, but there comes a time when someone has to do something about it, and more often than not, that “someone” is a judge.

If that judge constantly rules in favor of personal injury lawyers, ignores laws aimed at eliminating lawsuit abuse, and piles costs on consumers with his or her rulings, shouldn’t the people have an opportunity to vote that judge out of office?  Sure, elections can get expensive, but lawsuit abuse is expensive, too.  And in an appointment system, the opportunity for the average citizen to register his or her opinion with a vote on that judge doesn’t exist.

You can follow the ongoing debate over this issue at American Courthouse.