There have been a number of public opinion polls over the past few years, including several recently, all of which reveal that Alabama citizens want a big change in how we elect judges in our state. In fact, the results haven’t even been close. It’s evident that Alabamians, without a doubt, want non-partisan elections. Recently, the Birmingham News editorial board spoke on the issue. I am including it below for the consideration of our readers.
Alabama’s method of choosing judges is just as troubling in off-election years as it is during the years featuring political campaigns. But the election years do have a way of bringing the problem home. Simply put, those who aspire to be the impartial referees in our system of justice are put in a position where they must align with a political party and try to drum up support (and money) from people who appear in their courts. That’s like making football referees pick a team and shake down the players before heading out to call the game.
Alabama would never stand for such a system with regard to our favorite sport. Why do we stand for it in our courts? As it turns out, we might not if we were given the alternatives, according to a recent survey by the Alabama Education Association’s respected polling operation. The Capital Survey Research Center in Montgomery found, for starters, that many Alabamians aren’t even aware our system of choosing judges is screwy. Almost 63% of those polled didn’t know Alabama is one of only 12 states that elect judges by political party. More than 67% didn’t know our Supreme Court elections have been among the nation’s most expensive or that campaign contributions to those candidates are unlimited.
When given a chance to consider possible alternatives, just less than 17% said they would keep electing statewide judges by political party. Close to 15% would keep partisan elections but elect statewide judges by congressional district. But: Close to 35% said they would support having judges appointed based on merit. And almost 23% would at least move to nonpartisan election for judges. The rest either didn’t know or didn’t answer. The poll involved 874 likely voters, and it ran in February, March and April. If the questions were asked during the heat of a judicial race — at least if it were a race like some of the nasty ones we’ve endured in years past — the alternatives might draw even more support.
This editorial page’s position is that nonpartisan judicial elections would be better than partisan ones, but would not really solve the problem. Truth be told, businesses and plaintiff lawyers don’t care whether judicial candidates have a “D” or an “R” by their names. They’d still pump money into nonpartisan races just like they do the partisan ones. The better answer is to have judges appointed based on merit and then appear on ballots later to give voters a chance to retain them, or not. Would there still be politics involved? Of course. But it wouldn’t be the kind of corrosive judicial campaigns Alabama experiences today.
We’re hoping this year’s court races will be less shameful than some in years past. But the current system of elections provides an incentive for the candidates and their campaigns to act in ways unbecoming impartial referees for our courts. The spectacle of our judicial elections is often an embarrassment to some of the state’s fine judges, and it fuels public mistrust of the courts. For obvious reasons, Alabamians believe there is a connection between judicial rulings and judges’ campaigns. The good news is, there are better ways to select judges. The better news is, many Alabama voters recognize them.
Birmingham News Editorial Board
May 12, 2010
The only way that non-partisan judicial elections will ever take place in Alabama is for a Governor to make it a top priority, and that will happen if ordinary folks will let the person who sits in that powerful office know how they feel on this issue. That opportunity will be available in 2011 when a new Governor is sworn in. It might be good to find out how the candidates for Governor feel about this issue before voting in the general election.
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