Again with judicial elections

Here we go again.

Texas is one of seven states that holds partisan elections for judges, a practice that one watchdog group says can lead to conflicts of interest.

“We have a judiciary at the highest level, the Texas Supreme Court, that gets 40 to 50 percent of its campaign money from the very people who are practicing before that court,” said Craig McDonald, head of Texans for Public Justice, a follow-the-money political watchdog.

He thinks a fix is pretty easy: Move to an appointed judiciary. And he’s not alone. Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Jefferson Wallace said as much in his State of the Judiciary speech before the Legislature in 2011.

“A justice system built on some notion of Democratic judging or Republican judging is a system that cannot be trusted,” Wallace told lawmakers.

He argued that appointing the judiciary would keep judges from bending to political winds.

“I would eliminate straight-ticket voting that allows judges to be swept from the bench, not for poor work, not for bad ethics, not for bad temperament, not even for controversial but courageous decisions — but purely because of party affiliation,” he said.

McDonald said the biggest problem with party affiliation is that it can draw judges into the same ideological battles fought by candidates seeking legislative office.

“Our judges act as if they’re politicians,” he said. “They run on partisan ballots, they raise money, they get elected on partisan ballots. They’re more politicians then they are judges in many respects.”

I’ve said this multiple times, so I’ll try to keep this brief. I believe it is naive in the extreme to think that you can de-politicize the process of selecting judges. If you go to a gubernatorial appointment system, it means that judicial wannabees will spend their time sucking up to whoever is Governor. Under this Governor, that would mean every judge would be a federal-government-hating Republican. Even with a more even-handed Governor, if the appointment system comes along with “nonpartisan” retention elections, do you really believe that players like Texans for Lawsuit Reform will sit idly by? Of course they won’t. About the only difference I can see is that fewer people would be casting the ballots. How exactly is this an improvement?

I’m not saying the current system we have is best, just that every time another one of these stories about how appointing judges would lead to a golden era of puppies and sunshine appears no one ever bothers to bring these points up. To me, this debate is roughly equivalent to the debate over term limits. Both are presented as solutions to the problem of how money influences elections, but to me they’re at best workarounds and at worst admissions of defeat. If the problem is with the influence of money on elections, then the solution is to reform how elections are financed. How we get there in the era of Citizens United is, I freely admit, a daunting challenge. Maybe a kludgey workaround is the best approximation of a solution we can achieve. If that’s the case, then let’s at least be honest about it.

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