Which Judge Candidate? Uninformed Choices, Real Consequences

IT'S A DILEMMA MOST VOTERS FACE EVERY TWO YEARS: HOW TO CHOOSE WHICH JUDICIAL CANDIDATE TO VOTE FOR.

IT'S LIKELY FEW OF US ARE PREPARED TO MAKE THE DECISION, AND SOME LEGAL EXPERTS SAY WE OUGHT TO BE CONCERNED ABOUT THAT FACT.

Some of those experts say our current method of choosing judges doesn't serve us or the cause of justice well....and in fact may be doing real harm to the judiciary itself.

"In judicial races, he average public has very little information other than what lawyers tell them or neighbors tell them," says State Senator Bill Raggio.

"When I was a lawyer or a judge, people would call me 'Who should I vote for?', adds National Judiciial College President William Dressel.

Failing informed advice, it's likely most voters make their choices one of 2 ways....on sheer name recognition with no more information than you see on a yard sign....or perhaps from a TV ad and in some races those ads have gotten nasty, attacking a candidates record without providing the context of the legal issues behind decisions.

"Some of that's fair game in partisan races where candidates can promise a great deal," says Raggio. "What can a judicial candidate promise? That I'll be tough on crime. After that, what? That I'll decide cases in your favor?"

Raggio is hinting at another problem with the current system. Judicial candidates have to raise money to campaign. And where do they turn? Attorneys who may appear before them or litigants who may eventually have cases in their courts.

But these 3-second televised bare knuckle judicial brawls may be leaving more than bruised reputations. Dressel says there's widespread fear it may be harming the institution itself.
"What we're losing is respect for the profession," he says, "and we're not really getting anything to help the public decide who is the best candidate."

So, is there a better way? Raggio thinks so and he's been trying to convince the rest of us for decades. His latest attempt is Senate Joint Resolution Two, passed by the 2007 legislature. If passed again next year, it would go on the 2010 ballot.

The measure is a modified "Missouri Plan" approach similar to the way judicial vacancies are filled now. Qualified candiates apply. An independent commission pares the list down to a slate of three from which the governor makes a choice. Once on the bench a judge's performance would be monitored by the commission which would then report its findings to the public. At the end of his term the judge would stand for a "retention election" with no opposition.

Raggio says about 20 other states have some form of this process. It's passage is by no means certain, however. Nevada voters have twice rejected other attempts at reform.


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