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Judicial elections draw fire from group

Others say appointments would be elitist

Judicial elections draw fire from group


By Sean Loughlin
CNN Washington

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Political campaigns for judgeships are getting more expensive and threatening the independence of the judiciary, according to a new report, which calls for the appointment of state and local judges.

"Judges are supposed to answer to the law -- not to donors," said Michael Petro, a spokesman for the Committee for Economic Development, a think-tank based in Washington. The group, which speaks out on numerous economic, legal and social issues, Friday released a report, "Justice for Hire: Improving Judicial Selection."

The report contrasts the selection of federal judges by appointment with the election of judges at the state and local level. Thirty-nine states require elections for those seeking or holding judicial office. In all, about 87 percent of the roughly 30,000 judges in the 50 states face popular elections. The number of elected judges exceeds the number of elected states legislators and executive offices throughout the country, the report found.

"Independent and impartial exercise of judicial authority is an essential aspect of a free society," said Derek Bok, president emeritus of Harvard University and co-chair of CED's subcommittee on judicial selection. "Instead of safeguarding judges from political pressures, most election systems invite such influence."

But other experts say the drive to appoint judges smacks of elitism and there's nothing wrong with electing judges.

"If we believe in democracy and the role of the people, it's quite appropriate for the people to pick judges," said James Bopp Jr., an attorney who represented the Minnesota Republican Party when it joined a successful Supreme Court challenge to a state law that limited campaign activity by judicial candidates.

In June, the nation's high court ruled that the Minnesota law, which severely restricted a judicial candidate's ability to speak out on issues, was unconstitutional. Minnesota, like other states, had passed that statute in a bid to prevent judicial candidates from engaging in political conduct deemed inappropriate.

But Bopp, general counsel for the Washington-based James Madison Center for Free Speech, said that kind of mind set encourages the notion that political campaigns are inherently corrupt.

"They're just authoritarian," he said of groups that advocate an end to judicial elections.

The report found that the cost of judicial campaigns is escalating, and candidates in some states must raise $1 million or more to be viable contenders. Most of that money comes from attorneys, which, according to the group, "creates the impression that justice is for sale."

The increasing role of money in judicial elections could subject a judge to outside influence that may affect a ruling, according to committee members.

"As business leaders, we are alarmed by these developments," said Roderick M. Hill, co-chairman of the subcommittee on judicial selection.

The report predicts that the political tenor of judicial campaigns will only increase because of the recent Supreme court ruling on the Minnesota statute.

"Contests will become even more combative, and judicial races will take on more of the character of elections for political office," reads the report.

At the same time, the CED concedes that changing the system won't come easy. Petro pointed out that most states elect judges.

"They're not going to change overnight," he said, but he said the group hopes to start a discussion about the issue.