After spending two days listening to a parade of candiates from selected judicial races vying for The Seattle Times editorial endorsement, two motifs emerged for me: the majority of incumbents and challengers fear money is having an increasingly negative effect on judicial races; and while most candidates think there’s a better way to select judges, there’s little consensus on what that better way should be.
Like many states, Washington’s judiciary is elected by voters. But while elections ensure that candidates interact with the people they’d preside over as judges, elections also carry a host of problematic.
Judicial races are chronically low energy contests. And because so few voters actually end up in court, the judiciary and the attorneys who aspire to the bench are largely unknown commodities.
Most voters wouldn’t consider those barriers to deciding on a candidate, so long as they have a chance to learn more about them. But long-held canons of judicial conduct prohibit candidates from explaining how they’d interpret the facts of a case as a judge.
Instead, all judicial candidates can really discuss is their resume and personal history.
Compounding judicial campaigns’ inherent difficulties is the national trend of money increasingly influencing their outcomes. Historically, judicial campaigns were run outside the purview of gaudy politics. But in recent years political action committees have sprung up to back certain candidates or oust others.
That’s been reflected in Washington where the Citizens for Judicial Excellence PAC is actively involved in a handful of races in King County this year.
But if elections are troubled, what are the alternatives?
- One option is to publicly finance judicial campaigns, leaving each candidate the same resources to their effort. But independent groups could still fund campaigns that affect outcomes.
- Another popular option is for the sitting governor to select judges for openings from a slate assembled by a nonpartisan merit selection commission. Those candidates would then stand alone in regular retention elections. That system distances candidates from the electorate and is subject to political influence.
I’m equally unsure, but would probably favor trying out the merit selection system. Which selection process do you think is best?
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