by Max Brantley
Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Robert Brown writes to the New York Times in defense of judicial elections. He was responding to retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra O'Connor's advocacy of an appointment process for judges.
Brown has long said appointment just substitutes one type of less transparent politics for another. Justice Brown's letter:
Former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wants to do away with judicial elections and replace them with an appointment scheme involving a select nominating commission, the state’s governor and an eventual retention election. In my view, this simply presents an opportunity for a different kind of politics and one that inevitably occurs behind closed doors.
What pressures would be brought to bear on such a commission and the governor? We would not know. At least, judicial elections, with all their flaws, occur in the bright light of day, and the people have a voice in selecting who will decide their cases.
The appropriate focus should be on reforming judicial elections and not on simply discarding them. Public financing of judicial elections is one reform that has been carried out in a few states and is under consideration by others. Voter guides with candidate profiles sent to all registered voters are another. Oversight committees to respond to toxic, vitriolic and misleading television ads are a third.
Judicial campaigns between opponents have much to recommend them. Perhaps the biggest benefit is forcing judges out of their isolated circumstances and into their communities. For the public to see their judges campaigning at events outside the courtroom, whether it be at civic club speeches or state fairs, inspires more confidence in the selection process. Initial state judicial selections that are made without a public say do not.
Robert L. Brown
Justice, Arkansas Supreme Court
Little Rock, Ark., May 25, 2010