Our judges often serve many masters

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 5, 2004

Throughout America’s history, there has been protracted debate over the best method of selecting judges.

The dilemma has been how to select judges by means consistent with the nation’s democratic values, and at the same time insulating the bench from political and special interest influence.

Because so many judgeships are up for election in this year’s Alabama primary, I thought it would be a timely topic to write about.

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The debate has come to the forefront in recent years as judicial elections in Alabama have become increasingly costly, contested, and negative.

A statewide judges race for the Alabama Supreme Court can easily cost $2 million.

At least two candidates have had ethics charges filed against them in recent years, and both have incurred costly bills to defend their positions, not to mention the negative impact on their candidacy.

In addition, we have had one Chief Justice race that was not settled for over a year after the election was concluded, and we have had another Chief Justice who was removed from office despite being elected by an overwhelming majority.

At issue in much of this is &uot;gaining the public trust.&uot;

Judicial authority has long relied on its independence and impartiality in following the rule of law to gain such trust and legitimacy.

As the judicial branch increasingly is viewed as a mechanism to resolve policy issues, the attendant perception of its power as a political instrument also is increasing.

Courts, in turn, have garnered the attention of interest groups hoping to shape these public policies.

As financial resources are funneled into judicial elections, particularly state supreme court races, contests are becoming increasingly partisan.

This trend impacts the public’s view of a fair, independent and impartial judiciary and leads many to perceive that big campaign donors unduly influence judicial elections.

The ideal situation is to depoliticize elections, but how do you successfully do that.

State judicial selection methods vary widely in the United States, falling into three general categories:

appointment, election, and merit selection, with various systems employed within these three categories.

While each selection method has its merits, all have distinct drawbacks and, despite efforts to remove politics from judicial selection, each method has inherent political overtones.

Several years ago I co-sponsored a bill in the State Senate with former State Senator Ann Bedsole of Mobile which was known as the Missouri plan.

It is based on merit selection and is a judicial reform incorporating parts of both the appointive and elective selection processes.

In short, merit selection is a process whereby a judicial nominating commission recruits candidates, accesses their qualifications, then submits a list of three to five qualified candidates to the Legislature or Governor from which an appointee is selected to fill an vacant judgeship.

The judge then serves an initial term, often of one year or until the next general election, then runs in a retention (yes-or-no) election, unopposed, in order to be &uot;retained&uot; and serve a longer, full term.

Subsequent retention elections are then required.

Our bill did not get very far, although it had the backing of a large segment of the legal community in Alabama.

Until we get a better system, I assume we just have to be diligent in studying the qualifications of those who are seeking the judgeships in Alabama.

This is a very important post because their decisions impact every citizen in our state.

Senator Wendell Mitchell can

be reached at 334-242-7883, or by writing

to P.O. Box 225, Luverne, AL 36049.