A Better Way to Choose Judges

Article excerpt

Byline: GUEST VIEWPOINT By Arden Olson For The Register-Guard

Whether any rule was violated, reasonable people may fairly question the civics of Circuit Court Judge Lyle Velure first filing for re-election and then announcing he would withdraw after his preferred successor had filed for the seat (Register-Guard, March 9), effectively allowing him to choose his replacement. Perhaps that's why, after public reaction, he reconsidered his decision to withdraw.

The policy issues here, however, run deeper than this single circumstance.

Judges are elected in about half of the states, including Oregon. But the history in Oregon and elsewhere is filled with examples of those close to the election system manipulating it to produce what they believe to be good choices for judges.

Another seat is about to be vacant in Lane County, the first announced vacancy resulting in a contested election for the Lane County Circuit Court in 14 years. One reason such elections are rare is a custom that judges resign their posts more than 61 days before the end of their terms, which gives Oregon's governor the opportunity to fill the vacancy under Article V, Section 16 of Oregon's Constitution.

Such appointments provide the new judge the opportunity to stand for election as an `incum- bent.' In many cases, the exception therefore `swallows the rule' that we elect judges.

An assumption underlying that custom - and perhaps Velure's action - is that the electorate cannot be trusted to choose the most qualified, intelligent, fair or impartial judges. One reason for the assumption is that judicial candidates cannot say much while campaigning.

Under Oregon's Code of Judicial Conduct, candidates may not make any promise of conduct that might limit their `faithful, impartial and diligent' performance of duties and may not identify themselves with any political party.

Candidates are therefore limited principally to explaining their histories and to affirming that they will be impartial and diligent. …