Americans would like to think that people who become judges
are of such high moral character and professional accomplishment
that they are incapable of wrongdoing. But the sad fact is that not
all who become judges are worthy of the title.
A few examples:
* A Tennessee judge convicted of sexually assaulting several
women in his courthouse chambers becomes a federal fugitive rather
than report to prison to serve 25 years.
* A Miami circuit court judge is sentenced to 15 years in
prison after being convicted of selling for $50,000 the identity of
an undercover informant in a drug case.
* The chief judge of the Illinois Supreme Court is censured
after reports that he used his power to try to beat speeding
tickets, "ruling" from behind his steering wheel that he was not
How best to separate judicial wheat from chaff is at the
heart of a debate over whether judges should be elected or
One idea is to give more attention to the selection of
potential judges to prevent unsuitable candidates from ever
reaching the bench, rather than trying to police and remove
incompetent or corrupt jurists.
The debate has been joined most recently in Florida, where
public-interest groups are pushing a proposal to end the election
of thousands of trial court judges throughout the state. Instead,
Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, and others want all
judges in Florida selected the way Florida Supreme Court and
appeals court judges are picked - through careful consideration of
a judicial nominating committee that examines qualifications and
temperament before recommending at least three candidates to the
governor for appointment. Each appointee is later subject to a
retention election, in which voters are asked whether the judge
should continue to serve or be replaced.
Opponents of this approach say it erodes democracy, replacing
a selection process open to millions of voters with an elitist
commission that will be heavily influenced by political pressures
unseen by Florida voters.
At the heart of the appointment-election debate is a dilemma
over how to strike a balance between two equally desirable goals:
achieving judicial independence from outside interference versus
holding judges accountable for their actions on the bench.
"When you start talking about judicial-election reforms, you
must ask what will this do to the independence or accountability of
the judges?" says Anthony Champagne, a political scientist at the
University of Texas at Dallas. "What each state has to do is find
the appropriate balance."
Proponents of so-called merit selection say the process
results in higher-quality judges who are less likely to bring
ridicule or disgrace to the judiciary. A study found that of 27
Florida judges disciplined in the 1970s and 1980s, 24 came to the
bench via elections. Three were appointed.
"We know that judges who are elected are much more likely to
be disciplined for their performance on the bench than those who
are appointed," says Sally Spener, executive director of Common
Cause Florida. …