Thursday, May 22, 2014

Politics and Judges

This week, the filing period opens for many legislative and state offices.  Judges, too, must run for election every six years.  This would normally be my year to run, but I have submitted my letter of retirement to the Governor and he has declared my seat to be open and filled by appointment after I retire in a few weeks. 

It accurate to say that many candidates have had some degree of political activity.  When I was appointed in 1988, a condition of becoming a judge was to give up partisan politics.  We could not make contributions to candidates, put up a sign on our lawns supporting a candidate, make endorsements, attend their rallies or even attend a caucus.  Frankly, about the only political thing we could do was vote.

And this was just fine with me.  Honestly, I did not want anyone who may appear before me to wonder if I were playing politics with the important matter that was being presented.  I have endeavored to treat all persons appearing before me equally:  Members of the party I used to belong to, as well as members of the opposing party; rich or poor; Caucasian or minority; etc.

The United States Supreme Court has ruled that I now may participate at least to a limited degree in political discourse.  Judges and candidates for judgeships may seek political endorsements from parties, for instance.  The public has a right to know where a judge or judicial candidate stands when deciding which judicial candidate to vote for. 

While it is true that there is not a lot of information available to voters when casting their ballots for judges, I still think it is a mistake to announce a position on any of the “hot button” issues that may arise in a judicial election.  There are two reasons for this:  1) If that issue subsequently comes before the judge, there would be a legitimate question about how fair and impartial the judge could be, given the previous statements and 2) More importantly, judicial decisions more often than not turn on a fact or detail specific to the case before the court.  It is just impossible to predict what given set of facts may be presented to a judge in any case. 

If a judge a pre-announced an intention to rule one way or the other, the judge may certainly be disinclined to go against the pre-announced position rather than appear to have “broken a campaign promise”. 

It is a mistake to insert judges into partisan political election campaigns.

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Next week:  I Always Wear This Dress to Court