Should Judges Answer to Law or the People?

Article excerpt

Byline: Bill Bishop The Register-Guard

E l e c t i o n 2 0 0 6

A constitutional amendment that Oregon voters rejected with a scant 50.6 percent majority in 2002 is back on the ballot as Measure 40, a constitutional amendment requiring that the state's high court judges be elected by geographic district.

Oregon has 10 judges on the Court of Appeals and seven justices on the Supreme Court. All serve six-year terms. But, proponents note, only one of them lives outside the populous Willamette Valley.

Proponents argue that the change would restore the state's original constitutional requirement for the courts, would ensure the high courts consider the varied perspectives of the state, and would help voters feel more connected to their courts.

Opponents say making geography a top credential is a poor way to find the most qualified legal minds to serve on the state's most important courts, and that judges are bound to follow the law, not to please a constituency or represent an area.

The two sides are separated by a deep philosophical and political chasm.

Leading the campaign is the Our Courts PAC and the Judicial Integrity Coalition, a group tightly aligned with the politically conservative FreedomWorks, based in Washington, D.C., which advocates nationwide for small government, reduced taxes and Christian values.

The Our Courts Committee has plowed more than $300,000 into the campaign, most of it coming from the Oregon Family Farm Association and the Judicial Integrity Coalition.

Opponents - including five Supreme Court justices, six Appeals Court judges, the Multnomah Bar Association and the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association - have raised about $58,000, according to campaign finance reports.

Proponents say the measure is all about power.

"I still see this as a kind of war between the political elite, who want to keep their power to appoint judges, and those of us who trust the people," says Kevin Mannix, a former gubernatorial candidate and spokesman for proponents. He says 85 percent of circuit and appeals court judges are appointed by the governor.

"The reality is, politics permeates the judicial selection process," Mannix says. "The only question is what kind of politics it's going to be."

Opponents claim that the measure would make judges vulnerable to campaign attacks from special interests funded by out-of-state groups. But Mannix says the proposal would cut out the skyrocketing cost of statewide judicial campaigns and make it cheaper to defend good judges from special interest attacks in their home districts.

Having judges elected by district would allow voters to know their candidates and to better identify with their judges, Mannix says. …