Why Judges Must Be Accountable To The People
July 8, 2008
“In the past, we’ve voiced reluctance about the prospect of adopting judicial elections…” says a blistering editorial in the Topeka, Kansas Capital-Journal, but “perhaps the time has come to discuss judicial elections.”
The Capital-Journal’s volte-face was inspired by a decision recently handed down by Shawnee County District Judge Matthew Dowd, who sentenced a man who pleaded guilty to having sex with a 6- and a 7-year-old child to three years probation. Under Kansas sentencing guidelines, he should have spent the rest of his life in prison.
According to the Capital-Journal, letting vicious, vile sex offenders walk free is routine practice for Judge Dowd. Last month, he reduced the sentence of a man who savagely raped a 5-year-old child. Last year, Judge Dowd gave three years probation to a man “convicted by a jury of 17 felony counts of raping and sodomizing a 14-year-old girl,” rather than the 13 years allowed under Kansas sentencing guidelines. And instead of the 12-year prison term due a man convicted for soliciting sex over the Internet with who he thought was a 13-year-old girl, Judge Dowd granted probation.
The Capital-Journal rightly called Judge Dowd’s latest outrage “an apparent act of defiance from a judge who has all too frequently thumbed his nose at the community…” Sentencing guidelines, after all, are not just arbitrary numbers; they are meant to reflect the collective will of the people regarding the seriousness of a crime and the punishment required for justice to be done.
Judge Dowd’s actions represent an all too familiar practice on many of today’s courts: judges who substitute their own personal ideologies for the rule of the law. The authors of many state constitutions created a check for this type of judicial abuse by making judges accountable to the people through contested democratic elections.
Jeffrey Alderman of the Kansas Bar Association lamely counters that Judge Dowd actually was elected – back in 1976. But, as he knows, Shawnee County dumped democratic elections a year later – with the full support of the Kansas Bar Association – and replaced them with a system where judges are selected in secret. The system of secret selection supported by the Kansas Bar Association insulates judges like Matthew Dowd from the people they serve and ensures that they can remain on the bench as long as they desire. If Judge Dowd was forced to stand for re-election against an actual opponent, is there any doubt that the people of Shawnee County would know what to do?
The Capital-Journal labeled Judge Dowd’s latest decision “shocking, unacceptable, disgusting.” They’re right – but it’s also Exhibit A in the case for restoring judicial accountability in Kansas through democratic elections.