O’Connor Decries Political Pressures on Judges

Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has taken her quest for merit selection of state judges to the pages of Parade magazine.

In an article headlined “How to Save Our Courts,” O’Connor said groups that spend big money in judicial elections distort the issues and leave the impression that justice has been bought.

“Political pressure is a big problem in a number of our state courts,” she wrote. “More than 89 percent of state judges go through some form of election process. Many of these elections recently have become full-fledged political battles, fueled by growing sums of money spent by candidates and special-interest groups to attack, defend and counterattack.”

O’Connor notes that a judge who won the most expensive election in history is turned off by the process. Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier was elected in 2004 after the candidates spent $9.3 million. “That’s obscene for a judicial race,” Karmeier said. “What does it gain people? How can anyone have faith in the system?” ?” (For more on the problem of money and judicial races, see “Mud and Money,” an article in the February 2005 ABA Journal.)

O’Connor says one answer to the problem is merit selection of judges, in which governors appoint judges based on recommendations from an independent commission. The judges would then run in retention elections after several years on the bench.

O’Connor also said voter education is key to electing good judges. Toward that end, she is developing two programs with Georgetown University and Arizona State University. One called Our Courts is an online lesson for children to help them understand what judges do. The other, the Sandra Day O’Connor Project on the State of the Judiciary, will report on the best ways to safeguard the court system.

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