SHENOY: Selection reforms required to preserve integrity of courts
Opinions Column: The Political Backburner
I’ll probably appear before a judge sometime. So will you. Hopefully for minor infractions — parking tickets, maybe speeding. Regardless of the circumstance, we expect and demand that facts and evidence, in accordance with the law, determine the outcomes, punishments and penalties.
In the political culture of big money and elections, this judicial impartiality may be thrown by the wayside.
State courts, which arbitrate everything from parking tickets and jaywalking to rape and murder, routinely have their judges elected. According to the Brennan Center for Justice,"87 percent of state court judges face elections," which throw judges into the fray of punch-and-score advertising and trench-style election warfare. And with an estimated $129 million spent on television advertisements for state Supreme Court races between 2000 and 2014, it is not surprising that judges are beholden to special interests, often changing their sentencing tendencies, particularly during election years. In states like Pennsylvania and Washington, which have judicial elections, trial judges sentenced defendants convicted of serious felonies to longer sentences when the judges were closer to re-election. In the Brennan Center’s review of 10 studies of judicial elections, they found the same conclusion in every study: Judges are “more punitive toward criminal defendants in criminal cases” during election years. For convicted defendants, the time of the trial and the person who presides over the trial may have more of an impact on sentencing than the facts of the case itself. At times, our judges seem to be less impartial adjudicators and more politicians in robes.
Take the state of Alabama. All judges — from trial judges all the way to the state Supreme Court — run in partisan judicial elections. As a state that permits capital punishment, and one that allows judges to override jury verdicts for any reason in cases of capital punishments, judges are often attacked as “soft on crime” or tout their own “tough-on-crime” record in death penalty cases. In one advertisement for Kenneth Ingram, a judicial candidate up for re-election in 1996, the narrator describes a particularly violent homicide and then proceeded by saying, “without blinking an eye, Judge Kenneth Ingram sentenced the killer to die.” We need fewer people blowing their own horn and thumping their own chest. The life and death of a criminal defendant should not be used for political points. But too often it is. In a state like Alabama, judges often times lack the judicial restraint required to fairly and impartially interpret the law. It begs the question: For what reason would a judge overrule a unanimous or nearly unanimous jury? One possible explanation could be election pressure — the Equal Justice Initiative concluded that trial judges in Alabama override a jury decision to impose the death penalty more often in election years. Judges, who are subject to political pressure, should not wield unilateral power to determine who lives and who dies.
While the legislative and executive branches may be influenced by political pressure, we must reaffirm that our courts and judges answer only to the law. We must reaffirm that we believe in an impartial judicial system by passing legislation that limits SuperPAC funding of a judicial campaign. We must reaffirm that everyone has the right to a fair trial by limiting the maximum contribution to judicial candidates. This is the very least we can do. In the long term, we should reform the way we select judges. It is important to consider a system proposed by retired Republican Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, which would allow for public nomination and appointment of judges. Non-partisan committees would review candidates for a vacancy and ultimately pass a list of qualified candidates to a governor who would then appoint judges. At the end of each judicial term, the non-partisan committee would review the performance of the judge and publish a report. Judges would retain their position through a non-partisan retention election — a yes/no election in which candidates would need to receive a certain “yes” percentage among all voters. While this system is not perfect, it would reduce the political storm cloud hovering over judicial candidates while maintaining accountability to voters.
Our judicial system is the foundation of our democracy. In court, we expect to be equals in the eyes of the law. We should all expect to appear before a judge, maybe as a violator of the law, maybe as a jury member, maybe as a lawyer. We deserve the same respect that we afford for judges.
Vineet Shenoy is a School of Engineering sophomore majoring in electrical engineering. His column, “The Political Backburner,” runs monthly on Fridays.
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