The most pointless judicial election ever?

One candidate was declared ineligible. The votes were counted anyway. But to what end?

A remarkable story from Alabama. Last fall, prosecutor Linda Hall won the Democratic primary for a seat on the Jefferson County Circuit Court located in Birmingham. But before the general election, her primary opponent challenged her victory, alleging that Hall did not meet the state’s requirement that judicial candidates live in the circuit for at least 12 months before the election.

The court agreed, and held that Hall was ineligible to run in the general election. But the ballots had already been printed, so the primary challenger was left out in the cold. Moreover, the court declared that the votes in the general election must still be counted. Despite her ineligiblity, Hall handily defeated the Republican incumbent, Teresa Pulliam, by 16,000 votes in November.

Unsurprisingly, Hall’s electoral victory brought a new round of litigation, this time by two Jefferson County voters who challenged Hall’s fulfillment of the residency requirement. In a trial in late 2018, Hall testified that over the previous 12 months she had lived in four different apartments in the Birmingham area, as well as a number of extended stay hotels in St. Louis, Missouri. Hall explained that she had to keep moving apartments due to problems with mold, foul odors, and smoking neighbors. By early October — just weeks before the general election — she landed in her final apartment, which was actually located within Jefferson County.

After trial, Hall was again declared ineligible for the judgeship, and enjoined from taking the oath of office. This past week, the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed that decision without opinion.

So, to recap: a judicial candidate who was declared ineligible for office before the general election was nevertheless elected, and later barred from taking office. Three different courts had to get involved. And at the end of the day, the people of Birmigham County had an unfilled judicial seat. (In another twist, Hall’s opponent, Judge Pulliam, was quickly appointed to a different seat on a criminal court. So losing an election evidently isn’t much of a career killer.)

I suspect that there is much more behind this story, at least as to the motivations of those charged with putting judges on the Alabama bench. It isn’t much of a surprise that Judge Pulliam, a Republican, would be reappointed to another seat by the state’s Republican governor. Likewise, I suspect that Ms. Hall’s electoral victory was a product of party and identity politics. Hall is an African-American woman running as a Democrat in a city that is more than 70% African-American and which regularly elects Democrats to office. It is well-established that many (perhaps most) judicial voters have little knowledge of the candidates before them, and accordingly look for low-salience cues like party affiliation, race, gender, or last name to aid their decisions. If the system worked well, voters would have recognized that a vote for Hall was meaningless. But they voted for her in droves.

It may well be that given Alabama’s dark history of racial inequality, a pure appointment process for judges may not create sufficient public trust in the judiciary. Allowing communities to choose their own judges through elections may therefore be a necessary accommodation. But if we are to put judicial candidates before the voters, at least those candidates should be minimally qualified, and at least the voters should be minimally discerning.