The American Judicature Society: A Campaign for Better State Court Judges, 1913-1940

Article excerpt

This article explores AJS's leadership role in efforts toward improving the quality of state court judges between 1913 and 1940. Three decades of enterprise by the American Judicature Society, aimed at improving the process for recruiting and retaining high-quality state court judges, contributed to the formulation and success of the Missouri Plan.

In November 1940, Missouri voters approved a state constitutional amendment implementing a first-of-its-kind program for the selection and retention of state court judges- the "Missouri Plan," so named in honor of its initial adopter.1 Today, some aspect of the Missouri Plan is used to select some or all judges in a majority of American states and the District of Columbia. Three decades of enterprise by the American Judicature Society (AJS), aimed at improving the process for recruiting and retaining high-quality state court judges, contributed to the formulation of the Missouri Plan, culminating in its initial electoral success.

This article explores AJS's leadership role in efforts toward improving the quality of state court judges between 1913 and 1940 as viewed through the lens of the group's primary publication. Journal of the American Judicature Society. AJS represented itself as a not-for-profit private corporation organized for the "...sole purpose of encouraging efficiency in the administration of justice."2 It served as a vital information source and sounding board for those who wished to pursue actively improvement of the American judicial system during the first half of the twentieth century, a time when such resources were largely unavailable. AJS sought to exhort and educate through the dissemination of experience and knowledge. The organization was instrumental in many of the institutional improvements of the period, especially those relating to the selection and retention of state court judges.

Foundations

The Constitution of the United States of America directs that federal judges be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate3 and shall maintain their office during good behavior while receiving undiminished compensation for their services.4 According to Alexander Hamilton, this assures "[t]he complete independence of the courts of justice," a phenomenon "peculiarly essential" to good governance; "[wjithout this, all the reservations of particular rights or privileges would amount to nothing."5 The federal approach has resulted in a staunchly independent judiciary. The situation in state courts, however, is much different. No state court judges are appointed and retained in a manner identical to the federal process, and only a few enjoy tenure during good behavior.6 The overwhelming majority of state jurists must intermittently submit to the crucible of democracy: a popular election.

Each American state has a discrete judiciary with its own institutions and history.7 Prior to 1845, every state entering the Union designated appointment of most or all of its judges.8 In contrast, every state admitted between 1846 and 1912 provided for popular election as the primary means of selecting judicial officers.9 A wave of democratization enveloped the nation in the decades prior to the Civil War, and 15 of the 29 states that existed in 1846 amended their constitutions predominantly in favor of elected judiciaries within a decade.10 The Progressive era of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, however, witnessed widespread dissatisfaction with the functioning of the American legal system and the popular election of judges became prey.

In 1906, Roscoe Pound, future dean of Harvard Law School, delivered a famous address to the annual meeting of the American Bar Association (ABA) entitled "The Causes of Popular Dissatisfaction with the Administration of Justice."11 He argued the judiciary failed to address modern problems like rapid population growth and the transition of the economy from agriculture to manufacturing. Pound called for an overhaul of the substantive law through both legislation and judicial empiricism. …