The View from Within: Reflections on the Work of Ajs at the Century Mark

Article excerpt

This article is a collection of thoughts from past leaders of the American Judicature Society reflecting on the organization's accomplishments over its first one hundred years and its challenges in the future. Leaders say the organization is needed just as much now-or perhaps more than ever-to counter threats to the judiciary and believe AJS is well-positioned to meet those challenges.

After one hundred years of working to improve the administration of justice, leaders of the American Judicature Society aver that the organization is just as needed-or perhaps needed more than ever-to counter threats to judicial independence, provide education on judicial ethics and the role of the judiciary, support citizen juries, and improve the criminal justice system. To commemorate our centennial and prepare for our future, we spoke to several current and former leaders of AJS to garner their reflections of the past and their view of the future of AJS in the Society's signature areas of interest and advocacy.

These leaders point to dwindling budgets for judicial administration, the increasing influence of money and politics in judicial elections, political attacks on the courts, and a tough fundraising environment as key challenges the organization will face in coming years.

But they are quick to note AJS's strong standing in the legal community as a nonpartisan organization, excellent staff and volunteers, and long-running stability as reasons to believe the organization will meet those challenges in its next 100 years. Dr. Frances K. Zemans, who served as executive vice president and director of AJS from 1987 to 1996, recalled being asked, as she was leaving the organization, what issue would be most important moving forward.

"My answer at that time, I remember very clearly, was judicial independence, and 1 would say the very same thing today because of what's gone on in the politics of judicial reform, and the exponential growth of money coming into the judicial system through the election process," Zemans said. "Even judges, when they are surveyed, believe that campaign contributions affect outcomes in court, and, of course, the public definitely believes that, and that's a challenge for the legitimacy of the judiciary."

Zemans, a doctor of philosophy in political science specializing in judicial process, believes the judiciary more than ever needs a force promoting its independence.

"The whole political world has changed pretty dramatically in recent years, and with so many states still electing their judges and those elections becoming more polarized, more involving large sums of money from outside interest groups, it seems to me all the more important to have a counter force that's providing an alternative," Zemans said.

Judicial Independence and Merit Selection

The work AJS has done on that alternative-merit selection of judges- has distinguished it from other organizations over the last several decades, according to Judge John R. Tunheim. Tunheim, who served as AJS president from 2007 to 2008, has been a U.S. District Court Judge in Minneapolis for 17 years.

"It's a tough thing for a state to bring more merit selection procedures into play and, as a result, kind of take judicial selection farther away from the political process," Tunheim said. "It's not an easy thing to do and I think the persistence of AJS along with the strong, professional, independent, nonpartisan research it provides has really been not only a hallmark of what AJS has done, but it's a great service to the country and to judicial independence."

But Tunheim said judicial independence is threatened by the increasing number of states that permit open campaigning and partisan endorsements in judicial elections.

"Those are some of the reasons AJS is more important than ever today," he said.'There are other organizations, hut AJS has such a long history of distinguished service that its reputation remains strong. …