No Merit for Alabama

September 4, 2008

The Montgomery Advertiser in Alabama backs a call by Democratic state Supreme Court candidate Deborah Bell Paseur to abolish democratic judicial elections and replace them with “merit” selection – where lawyers meet in secret to decide who gets to wear the black robes.  Paseur complains:

Begging for votes …is demeaning to the institution of the judiciary.

It’s a terrible system – our democracy.  All this tiresome business about “of the people, by the people, for the people.”  I can only imagine how appalled Ms. Paseur must have been watching Senator Obama – running for an office far more consequential than the state judiciary – demean himself before 80,000 real live people in Denver last week, not to mention the millions more who watched on television – almost begging Americans to vote for him.  The horror.

I know we’re supposed to believe that judges are different from all other public servants; that it somehow sullies their independence if they must stoop to explaining to voters what philosophy will guide their decisions – rulings that directly impact the lives of millions of citizens.  No one has been able to prove that a judge’s independence is sacrificed by standing before the people in democratic elections.  But we do know with certainty that another equally important principle is sacrificed when we take away the right to vote and substitute “merit” selection:  the principle of public accountability.

But both Ms. Paseur and the Montgomery Advertiser think they have a good reason to eliminate this vital check on judicial power.  When judges accept campaign contributions, they suggest, it undermines public confidence in the entire judiciary.  As the paper explains:

But who really believes that any human being who has accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from one side or the other can completely set aside that fact when considering an issue?

Asserting that Alabama judges are making decisions based on campaign donations is a serious charge, yet the Advertiser offers no evidence to back it up.   But come to think of it, doesn’t the Advertiser also accept “hundreds of thousands of dollars” from groups that advertise in the paper or on its Internet site?  I mean, “who really believes that any human being” – like reporters and editors – “can completely set aside that fact” that these advertising dollars pay their salaries?  It has to influence their news judgment doesn’t it?

But enough with unsubstantiated allegations.

In an era where judges routinely refuse to serve as impartial arbiters of the law, but instead act like quasi-legislators who bend the law to their own social or political preferences, it is more critical than ever that these powerful office holders be accountable to the people.  Judges are not Delphic oracles whose utterances, although incomprehensible to mere mortals, must nevertheless be accepted without question at the risk of angering the gods.  If we can trust ordinary people to elect leaders to write the law, and trust them to elect leaders to enforce the law, there’s no reason we can’t trust them to elect leaders to interpret the law.  Or does the Montgomery Advertiser believe the people who fill our legislatures, governors’ offices and even the White House are chosen without regard to merit?

Alabama’s Constitution clearly states that state Supreme Court justices “shall be elected by the qualified electors of the state.”  Until that Constitutional right is withdrawn, Ms. Paseur will just have to keep demeaning herself before the voters if she aspires to the high honor of serving Alabama citizens.

Posted by in the categories: Alabama, Judicial Elections