This Little Light Of Mine And Judicial Elections
I wondered yesterday how in the world Drayton Nabers managed to lose his seat as Chief Justice. This morning, the experts are in agreement that it was Sue Bell Cobb’s commercial in which she played the piano and sang “This Little Light of Mine.”
Pause here, and digest that for a bit.
To be fair, it was not just the commercial. They think Naber’s attack ads actually backfired on him, and that Cobb’s experience also helped. My point, though, is that the race was not decided on merit.
SBC may end up being a fine judge, but that she got the job because of her singing talents ought to concern us all. Do we really want the makeup of our judiciary to depend on who has the snazzier commercials?
Maybe we ought to consider a different method for choosing judges.
I know it sounds elitist to suggest that judges ought to be appointed, but being a judge is different than being a normal politician. The judge is supposed to be beholden to no-one but the law. Elections make them dependant on parties, and donors, and the whims of voters. The dependence must have some impact on the decisions, and if not it certainly looks like it does. No-one wins when justice is for sale.
I’m never going to argue in favor of the federal system, in which the process is entirely controlled by politicians and the result is life tenure for the judge. That is too much protection. I will, though, argue in support of the state bar’s proposal. I know you are tired of hearing me rant about this, so I promise not to bring it up again. For a while anyway.
Under that bar’s plan, a nine person nominating commission first selects three candidates, and the governor will then choose one of those three.
The nominating commission consists of four lawyers, four non-lawyers, and a judge. One of the lawyers must be a civil defense lawyer, one must be a plaintiff’s lawyer, one must be neither, and one can be anything. All members are limited to one four year term.
At the expiration of the judge’s term, she can run in a retention election. The ballot is non-partisan and asks only whether or not the judge ought to be retained for another term.
Prior to that election, an evaluation commission will provide a public report. The report will include pertinent information and the commission’s recommendation for the election, either retain, do not retain, or no opinion.
The evaluation commission consists of five non-lawyers, four lawyers, the Chief Justice, and either the presiding judge of the court of criminal appeals, or the presiding judge of the court of civil appeals. No one is allowed to serve on both commissions.
I think this is a great plan. It gives people a voice, but makes sure they have good information upon which to act. It insulates judges from the political process but also keeps them accountable. It also insulates the judges from the poisonous affects of campaign donations. No one is going to pore money into a retention election when they have no idea who the replacement would be. If the judge is not retained, the whole process starts over. The result could just as easily be worse for whatever special interest is affected.
One more thing. Bob Riley said that after his second term, our motto will no longer be “thank God for Mississippi.” If the bar’s plan ever became reality, in this area we would be national leaders. I know for some of us that is reason to oppose it. But for the rest of us, this would be something we could truly point to with pride.