The Philadelphia Inquirer reports on the results of last week’s ballot lottery for candidates seeking a position on Philadelphia’s Court of Common Pleas (its general jurisdiction trial court). Forty-eight candidates entered the state primary for ten open positions, and their ballot order was determined by lottery. The article nicely details the consequences of ballot position: candidates at the top have a tremendous strategic advantage in the primary election, regardless of their relevant experience, expertise, or skill.
Judicial elections were the standard for state courts until the mid-twentieth century, but their flaws have become increasingly exposed over time. Poor or incompetent judges are elected, experienced jurists are removed in party sweeps, and public confidence falls as judges are treated as ordinary politicians. Groups like Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts have been at the forefront of pushing for positive change in that state’s judicial selection methodology.
Contested elections can — and often do — produce fine judges. And judges should be accountable to the public they serve, no matter how they are chosen. But the surety of choosing a good judge by contested election increasingly feels like a lottery itself.
Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Neil Gorsuch begin today with the introduction of the nominee by his home state senators, Michael Bennett and Cory Gardner of Colorado. It is a nice bipartisan tradition for the home-state senators to introduce all federal judicial nominees, presumably dating back to a time when the rest of the Senate was not assumed to be familiar with a candidate. While almost all post-Robert Bork Supreme Court hearings have been contentious at times — usually unnecessarily so — it is a nod to decorum that the Senate still begins every hearing with such a welcoming gesture.
Home-state bipartisanship in judicial selection is not just a matter of courtesy. Senators from many states have developed bipartisan screening committees to help them recommend qualified candidates for lower federal judgeships to the President. These screening committees review the qualifications of those interested in judgeships on federal district courts and circuit courts of appeal, and pass the names along to the home state senators, who then pass along names to the President. While the President has ultimate discretion in choosing a nominee for any Article III judgeship, the use of screening committees effectively pre-ratifies the candidate, and helps ensure a much smoother confirmation process. The Supreme Court represents a special circumstance where screening committees are not used, but we can hope that both President Trump and the Senate will continue to rely on them where appropriate in considering lower court nominees.
We will be following the Gorsuch hearings this week, with commentary to follow on how the hearings reflect and impact the current relationship between Congress and the courts.
I previously reported on a bill in the North Carolina legislature that would convert the state’s elections for trial judges into partisan races. The practical effect would be that judicial candidates would first have to clear party primaries, and then would appear on the ballot with a party designation.
This was a bad idea, and Governor Roy Cooper has vetoed the bill.
Although Cooper is a Democrat and the North Carolina legislature is controlled by Republicans, the acknowledged inefficacy of partisan judicial elections is not itself a partisan issue. Politicians and commentators from across the political spectrum agree that in the modern era, party labels for judicial candidates weaken the public legitimacy of the judiciary, offer little significant information to voters, and are at best extremely awkward for judges. The North Carolina proposal was a step backward.
North Carolina used to select all of its state judges through partisan election. Judicial candidates would have to win a party primary, and would appear on the ballot with a party designation. In 1996, the state legislature eliminated the partisan designations for state superior court races, and in 2001 did the same for district courts. Judges still face contested popular elections, but do not run under any party affiliation.
North Carolina’s move put it in good company. While a handful of states still have partisan races, most states that still elect their judges long ago moved to a nonpartisan system. Nonpartisan elections are certainly not foolproof, but deliberately omitting party affiliation from the ballot at least reinforces the message that voters should expect their judges to be impartial in performing their official duties.
This week, however, the North Carolina Senate chose to revert to partisan judicial elections. The state House of Representatives passed a similar (but not identical) bill earlier in the session. There is speculation that the Governor may veto the bill. Stay tuned.
A recent court appointment in West Virginia highlights the interplay between a court system’s internal management and its external environment. Gary Johnson served as a state circuit court judge for 24 years before losing his reelection bid last year by 220 votes. Last month, his opponent, Stephen Callaghan, was suspended from his judicial duties for two years for improper conduct during he campaign. (Callaghan’s campaign apparently issued a flyer implying that Judge Johnson partied at the White House with Barack Obama, an action deemed to be a violation of the state’s Code of Judicial Conduct and Rules of Professional Conduct.)
Judge Johnson could not undo the election results, but he landed on his feet quickly. In January, he was appointed interim Administrative Director of the West Virginia courts. Yesterday, the state supreme court gave him the job permanently.
Continue reading “Former West Virginia judge appointed state court administrator after bizarre election campaign”
When Justice Steven Taylor recently retired from the Oklahoma Supreme Court, Governor Mary Fallin tapped 35-year-old Patrick Wyrick to fill his seat. Seats on the court are geographically distributed, and Wyrick was among three finalists from the state’s Second Judicial District whose names were submitted to the Governor for final consideration. The final nominees were chosen by the state’s Judicial Nomination Commission (JNC).
But now Justice Wyrick’s appointment is being challenged by the Oklahoma Chapter of the ACLU, on the grounds that he does not actually reside in the Second Judicial District. In preliminary arguments last week, Wyrick’s lawyer dismissed the challenge, asserting that the JNC’s selection of the three finalists is effectively unreviewable. The ACLU countered that no state entity, including the JNC, has all-powerful status.
The decision is now before the state supreme court itself, leaving the eight remaining justices to decide the fate of a potential colleague. The ACLU has further requested that any sitting justice who recommended Wyrick for a judicial position be recused from considering the case.
Certainly a fascinating example of court interdependence that bears watching.
The Wall Street Journal posted a nice article this weekend on the role of the American bar Association in reviewing and rating federal judicial nominees. (I was quoted, which was also nice!) It gives a good summary of the ABA’s rating process and the history behind it.
The ABA ratings have had their share of controversy, and in an age where everything is increasingly politicized, we should not be surprised if controversy continues. But the ABA’s overt avoidance of political/policy questions, and deliberate focus on the qualities everyone would expect of a good judge (appropriate demeanor, high level of competence, intelligence and legal skills, etc.) make it a worthwhile addition to the overall vetting process. Nor is the ABA alone: similar criteria are used by state judicial nominating commissions across the country.
The ABA’s involvement also underscores an oddity of federal judicial selection: almost everyone gets a say in the timing and substance of judicial nominations except the courts themselves. I’m hard pressed to think of another sizeable organization that is so constrained in hiring its core employees.
If you hit a subscription wall, a PDF of the article is here.