One of the (many) drawbacks of partisan judicial elections is that strong, knowledgeable, and experienced incumbents are at risk of being removed from the bench based solely on party affiliation. But the reverse is also true: in jurisdictions where judges are unaffiliated and have life tenure, it is often difficult to create any turnover in the judicial ranks — and when turnover does happen, it can happen all at once.
This article in the Providence Journal considers the case of Rhode Island’s supreme court, in which the youngest member is 68 and the oldest in his eighties. There is likely to be some radical turnover coming in the next few years as the current justices retire. It will present a special opportunity for whoever is governor as vacancies, but it also raises important questions about whether one governor should benefit from what could be seen as fortuitous timing.
These are the same questions that are routinely raised at the federal level, thus far without a clear answer.
On Wednesday, the Rhode Island House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill to create an unlimited number of new magistrate judges for its state court system. The bill was controversial, in that many of the state’s existing magistrates have been appointed outside of the prescribed process. State judges are supposed to be appointed through the state’s Judicial Nominating Commission, which provides opportunities for vetting and public input. Many magistrates, however, appear to have received their appointments as political favors.
As I noted previously, this is a tough spot for the Rhode Island court system. The additional magistrates will be welcomed to help with the courts’ work, but the court system as a whole could lose legitimacy if the public lacks confidence in the appointment process.
The Rhode Island court system recently received good news when the state’s House Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would allow the Chief Judge of the District Court to appoint an unspecified number of new magistrates. Currently, the District Court is operating with only two magistrates.
But the bill’s advance remains controversial. Other judges in the state are vetted by a nominating commission before being appointed by the governor. And over the past 25 years, many of the magistrates who were appointed outside the political process have had political connections. (Indeed, many are former legislators.) Can Rhode Island balance the resource needs of its court system against political patronage concerns that could erode the courts’ legitimacy?