With midterm elections rapidly approaching political media has all its focus on both state and federal congressional races. But all across the country citizens will vote for more than just senators and representatives. They will also vote for judges.
Judicial elections rarely garner the kind of attention that congressional elections do. Voters rarely know much, if anything, about the candidates and party affiliation and disclosure is prohibited in some jurisdictions. But judicial elections may just be one of the sleeper issues putting significant pressure on the function of our democracy.
There’s growing evidence that partisan and special interest groups are targeting judicial elections as a way to further political agendas. Recent reports suggest that campaign fundraising for judicial elections from $83.3 million from 1900-1999 to $206.9 million from 2000-2009.
The issue is alarming enough that former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has taken up the issue of judicial election reform. According to Justice O’Connor, the public has a growing “crisis of confidence” in the impartiality of the judicial brach that if left unaddressed will “undermine the rule of law that courts are supposed to uphold”.
While judicial decisions undoubtedly have political implications, our entire system of checks and balances depends on one branch having the ability to impartially and remotely monitor, and check, the reach of the other two. At the same time, the idea and the evidence of corruption and partisanship in the judiciary is nothing new. The evidence from the report is troubling but unfortunately not surprising and really does little to address the problem–that is, how can we assure credibility, competency, and accountability in the judiciary?
Unfortunately there’s no clear answer to that question. Federal judges do not face election to a state citizenry, yet campaigns for their appointment are no less political. Perhaps what we are witnessing, and what Justice O’Connor has hit as a nerve is the dropping of pretense between the role of money and access to the court–more inevitable fallout from the Citizens United decision.
But like we’ve seen with the backlash against Target, the single greatest means of pushing back the influence of money in elections is disclosure. Target’s donation to MN Forward came to light because Minnesota has campaign disclosure laws requiring this kind of reporting. But not all states do, and recent efforts in Congress to pass the DISCLOSE Act fell just one vote shy (hmm… wonder why, and who would obstruct transparency in campaign donation efforts?). While Justice O’Connor does not advocate specifically for DISCLOSE or similar legislation, she should. As of now it’s really the citizenry’s only tool in parsing through the competing levels of monied interests in these upcoming elections.
Photo courtesy of walknboston via Flickr