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.

Texas judge accidentally resigns via Facebook

William “Bill” McLeod, a well-respected Houston-area trial judge, was contemplating running for the Texas Supreme Court in the 2020 general election. Earlier this month, he stated as much on his Facebook page, unaware that such a declaration triggered an automatic resignation from his current position under Article 16, Section 65 of the Texas Constitution.

Harris and his supporters appealed the automatic removal, but this week Harris County commissioners voted 4-1 to uphold the resignation. It appears to have been a difficult decision, given that McLeod was a popular and experienced judge who won a sizable majority in the last election.

Still, there were important countervailing considerations: Continue reading “Texas judge accidentally resigns via Facebook”

African-American legislators protest South Carolina judicial election

South Carolina is one of only two states in which the legislature chooses the state’s judges. (Virginia is the other.) Often, the biggest concern about this form of selection is that legislators will choose their colleagues for the bench rather than seeking out the best possible candidates.

This week, however, a different issue arose in South Carolina’s judicial election process. In a contested race for the state court of appeals, private attorney Blake Hewitt was elected over Allison Renee Lee, a state trial judge with 20 years of experience. Hewitt was considered highly qualified for the position, but lacked any of Lee’s judicial experience. Hewitt is also white, and Lee is black.

After the election, several (but not all) black legislators briefly walked out of chambers in protest. Some suggested that the election was an act of racism, while others expressed concern about ensuring greater diversity on the state bench.

The argument for overhauling judicial selection in New York

Ross Barkan has a compelling article with an evergreen headline: It’s time to reform New York’s machine-controlled judicial system.

I would add as (recent) Exhibits A-G:

New York City faces few takers for interim judicial appointments

Judicial aspirants brown nose at Brooklyn Democratic fundraiser

Another voice against de facto party control over the New York courts

“Insurgent” judicial candidates in Brooklyn continue their fight against machine politics

Brooklyn judicial candidates accuse local party chief of holding illegal fundraiser for their opponents

New York judicial candidate has spent over $33K from campaign coffers on other candidates and causes

Brooklyn judicial elections take an even more dismaying turn

 

Judicial reforms introduced in West Virginia

In the wake of several scandals that rocked its supreme court and led to a number of impeachments, West Virginia has introduced a series of reforms to improve public confidence in its judiciary. This week, Chief Justice Beth Walker updated the state legislature on the court’s internal reforms, including new travel and financial policies to combat the budgetary abuse that was endemic in the court until just a few months ago.

Separately, the state’s Judicial Investigation Commission has asked candidates in judicial elections to call on third parties to stop running false or misleading ads against their opponents, and to disavow any false or misleading statements that are made. While this opinion will be difficult to enforce–especially in a tightly-contested race–it would be refreshing for candidates to commit to it. There is little benefit to winning a judicial election, only to see public confidence plummet in the judiciary because the candidates are being routinely trashed on TV.

 

Texas judges disciplined for mutual election endorsements

Two Dallas-area judges have been disciplined by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct for endorsing each other’s bid for reelection this past fall.

The commission issued two public warnings to both Kim Cooks, judge of the 255th District Court, which handles family law, and Andrea Martin, judge of the 304th District Court, which handles juvenile law.

According to their warnings, during their 2018 campaigns for re-election, Cooks and Martin produced and distributed a campaign mailer that featured their names, titles and likenesses, urging voters to vote for each of them for their respective judicial races. The mailer included statements such as “Keep this talented team working for our families and for our children.”

Cooks and Martin also produced two campaign videos and posted them on social media in which they ask voters to support both of them in their reelection efforts. In one of the videos, the judges state: “We are your Dallas County Judges, your people’s judges. We are the community judges. And we need your help.”

Cooks and Martin also told the commission that they jointly hosted a fundraising event, at which separate tables were set up for each campaign. They also stated that their individual campaigns shared equally in the costs associated with the mailer, the videos and the fundraising event.

The judges pled innocent ignorance, stating that campaign behavior was not covered at new judges school. But that’s a poor excuse, and hardly demonstrates the sensible judgment that one expects of an impartial jurist.

Judge to appoint special master to assist in remedy phase of Louisiana judicial election case

Almost five years ago, a local branch of the NAACP in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, sued state officials in federal court, arguing that the state’s “at-large” system for electing judges systematically disenfranchised minority voters. After a trial in 2017, the federal district court agreed with the plaintiffs that the existing election scheme was unconstitutional. But the parties could not agree on the appropriate remedy, so the judge has asked both sides to suggest candidates for a special master, who will assist the judge in crafting an appropriate remedy.

“The parties didn’t agree on a remedy and the Legislature didn’t pass a remedy, so now it’s the court’s obligation to come up with a remedy,” [NAACP attorney Leah] Aden said on Saturday. “The court isn’t an expert in drawing maps. Judge Dick wants to do everything by the book, so she’s going to hire someone who’s familiar with drawing maps to aid her as an expert to evaluate the maps that we put up and potentially draw their own map. This person is basically a technical expert.”

A federal judge gave the state Legislature the first opportunity to remedy Terrebonne’s voting system, but the only proposed bill during the 2018 session died in committee.

This has been a fascinating case for observing how one sovereign’s judiciary (the federal courts) addresses fundamental issues pertaining to another (a state court system). It will be equally interesting to see how the final resolution plays out.