According to several watchdog organizations, Louisiana has one of the worst judicial climates in the country. The state has been given the dubious title of the nation’s judicial hellhole by several neutral watchdog groups. Campaign funds given to a judicial candidate are often cited as possibly influencing future judicial decisions. Some are advocating the appointment of judges in order to do away with the pressure on judicial candidates to raise campaign contributions. So is this the solution? Is appointing rather than electing judges the way to go in Louisiana?
But this raises the question -- who will do the picking. To paraphrase Huey Long, “I’m all for appointin’ judges as long as I get to do the appointin’.” After all, most appointed judges receive their job through the good ole’ boy network. It’s not what you know, but who you know, and few get these plumb appointments for life without being well plugged in to the political system. So those who sanctimoniously talk about the politics involved in electing judges are turning a blind eye to the heavy-handed politics of an appointed system.
There has been virtually no monitoring or policing of appointed judges on either the federal or state level. If there are any abuses on the bench, the other judges just turn their heads and refuse to pass judgment on their peers. This is true even if judges on a higher court are involved. So it is obvious that it will take more public scrutiny to see that appointed judges who put themselves in conflicting situations are held more accountable.
And what about the influence of campaign contributions that are accepted by those seeking to step up to the bench and wear black robes? No doubt about it. Campaign contributions pose a great problem for those who want impartiality.
Even if a judge swears not to be swayed by campaign contributions, there is a real perception problem here. Let’s face it -- lawyers who practice before elected judges are often the prime source of campaign contributions. And too often, vested interests that have a case pending before an elected judge are significant sources for the same campaign contributions.
Most voters in Louisiana, as well as those throughout the rest of the country, want more accountability, and would like to have judicial candidates pass by them for approval on a regular basis. But how do you deal with the conflicts, or the perception of such, when it comes to campaign funds?
There’s an easy way to accomplish this goal. In most jurisdictions, it doesn’t even require an act of the legislature. Louisiana, and most other states could, by their own rules, require that a judge recuse him or herself from ruling on any case where either the attorney, the attorney’s law firm, or a party to the case has made a campaign contribution to this judge. Prohibit the campaign dollars, and the public gets a much better chance of seeing both impartial decisions rendered, and having a system in place where there is a clear perception that both sides are getting a fair shake.
And there are several ways to have judges elected. Direct election where any qualified candidate can run (generally for a six-year term) is the more traditional way it works in most states. A few states are moving toward the Missouri plan, where a select committee of good government types initially appoints a judge. Once the judge gets appointed to the bench, there is an up or down public referendum on his ability to serve at the completion of his first term. Only if the judge is voted out of office does the position open back up for new candidates.
Whatever plan is put into place, doing away with campaign contributions from those involved in the process can go a long way in restoring the credibility that has been undermined in recent years.
If legislators on the state level want to see an immediate improvement in the perception of the state judicial system, changing the rules of raising campaign funds will be an important first step. Oh, there will be some hollering from some who sit on the bench. But on balance, it is a solution that merits some review. And it is a lot better system than lifetime appointments where the guys and gals in black robes show a disdain for both scrutiny and accountability.