On the politics of judicial identity

Two recent stories illustrate the slippery role that stereotypes and identity politics play in state judicial elections. In Louisiana, judicial candidate Ron Johnson appeared in campaign ads wearing his twin brother’s judicial robe and calling himself “Judge Johnson.” (His brother is a sitting judge.) Johnson admitted his mistake and accepted responsibility for it, but the intent was clearly to send the message that he was an incumbent judge — and probably to take advantage of the professional goodwill his brother had already amassed on the bench.

Elsewhere, Caroline Cohen defeated three other candidates for a seat on the civil court bench in Brooklyn’s 6th judicial district last Tuesday. But one of her opponents, Tehilah Berman, charges that Cohen — nee Caroline Piela — took her husband’s identifiably Jewish last name shortly before the election in order to attract Orthodox Jewish voters in the district. Cohen apparently also ran ads in Jewish publications with the Biblical injunction “Justice, Justice shall you pursue.” Berman, who finished last in the race, claims that Cohen deliberately presented herself as a devout Jew in order to draw in votes.

We have seen sketchy campaign behavior before, including judicial candidates cynically manipulating their names for electoral gain. Last year, an even more egregious example was set when Chicago lawyer Phillip Spiwack named changed his name to Shannon O’Malley on the theory that a female, Irish name would make him a shoo-in with Cook County voters. Sadly, it worked. In another recent incident, a Nevada judge seeking reelection photoshopped Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson alongside her in a print ad, even though he had never endorsed her candidacy.

But seeing these two most recent incidents side by side was particularly striking, because they both undermine public confidence in the judiciary, but in opposite directions. Ron Johnson’s impersonation of a sitting judge preyed on the positive stereotypes that voters associate with the judicial robe. As I explain in part here, citizens associate the generic judge with a high level of impartiality, dignity, and inherent sense of fairness.  When a judicial candidate dons the robe and is later found to have acted unethically, positive associations with the robe and the judiciary go down.

Caroline Cohen’s name switch (occurring as it did months before the election, and after 13 years of marriage) was arguably even worse, as it sought to take advantage of the modern identity politics that have been sown so dismayingly at the national level. Cohen was banking on Orthodox Jewish voters choosing “one of their own” at the polls, having done no other homework on the candidates or their qualities and qualifications. She turns out to have been correct in that assumption (and indeed, similar behavior has been recorded in various parts of the country for decades), but at what cost? The entire episode moves public beliefs about the judiciary away from the ideals of neutrality, experience, and competence, and closer to the cynical wisdom of “she is one of ‘my’ people, and will put a finger on the scale for me if I ever need it.”

Modern politicians use identity politics divisively to create natural voter bases, and to later whip those bases into a froth with perceived slights against their group. The whole premise is degrading, dehumanizing, and de-democratizing, albeit an effective tool in our troubled times for the small-minded politician. Judges and judicial candidates, however, can never afford to peddle in the cramped and dark politics of identity. In doing so, they give away their greatest assets: the promise of equal justice for all.