Ex-justice says contested elections threaten fair judiciary

The need for judges to raise money to win contested elections presents one of the greatest threats to a fair and impartial judiciary, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said Monday.

“Judicial elections powered by money and special interests create the impression, rightly or wrongly, that judges are accountable to money and special interests, not the law,” O’Connor said. “Our judges should never be beholden to any constituency.”

O’Connor, who has long questioned the wisdom of judicial elections, made her remarks before a packed ballroom at the Georgia World Congress Center, the site of the 2013 Legislative Summit run by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

O’Connor, 83, is a former Arizona state senator who was nominated to the nation’s highest court by President Ronald Reagan in 1981. She became regarded as a key swing vote in often-divisive 5-4 rulings. She retired in 2006.

O’Connor lamented an environment in which judges are often evaluated like legislators for their decisions on the issues, rather than considered for their judgment and temperament. “Judges should be celebrated for their judicial abilities, not their political credentials,” she said.

Georgia is one of 22 states with contested judicial elections. Other states require judges to stand for retention elections in which voters are asked if they approve of the job the judges are doing. Some states allow for merit selections in which groups of lawyers and non-lawyers decide the best person for the job.

O’Connor cited studies that indicate the public believes judges are influenced by campaign contributions in their decision-making. Many also believe that judges issue rulings to benefit contributors of past campaigns or to attract supporters of future campaigns, she said.

“In my view, that need to raise money to compete in those elections presents one of the greatest threats to fair courts and that threat is increasing,” O’Connor said.

She said she believes merit selection is the best way to put judges on the bench. While some have criticized this option as being dominated by the plaintiffs’ bar and by “political elites,” it is better than the alternative of judicial elections, O’Connor said.

O’Connor also called for better civics education for the nation’s youth, citing studies that show how few people can identify the three branches of government or say what they do. Two-thirds of Americans can name one of the judges of the TV show “American Idol,” she noted, while only 15 percent can say John Roberts is the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Is it any wonder that we don’t have an appreciation for judicial independence and we’re quick to criticize any judge who may have to issue an opinion we might disagree with?” she asked. “Our nation’s schools are no longer teaching much civics education … and state requirements to do that have disappeared.”