Leaving Party Politics at the Courthouse Steps
By Chris Heagarty
RALEIGH – Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor recently hosted a national symposium at Georgetown University to discuss problems in state judicial elections.
"In too many states, judicial elections are becoming political prizefights where partisans and special interests seek to install judges who will answer to them instead of the law and the Constitution," said former Justice O’Connor. "I hope that every state that elects judges in partisan elections will consider reforms."
The good news is that North Carolina has taken important steps toward reform. The bad news is that the same political partisans and special interest groups that enjoy so much influence in other states still find ways to influence our elections.
North Carolina has made all state judicial elections nonpartisan, joining several other states that select their judges the same way. However, even though judges now run without party labels, both major political parties still promote "their candidates" to try to get a majority of "their people" on the high courts.
Republicans, who had long been shut out of judicial office in North Carolina and had strongly supported depoliticizing judicial elections, started winning judicial elections on the strength of their party label. Now that the political winds have shifted, some party leaders think partisan elections are just fine.
Meanwhile, Democrats who had long opposed depoliticizing judicial elections — so long as they kept winning them — had a change of heart once they found it harder and harder to win.
Once the elections were nonpartisan, many Democratic party leaders helped fund a secret campaign to boost a number of their candidates in the final days of the 2006 election. Under the name FairJudges.net, their political organization engaged in some decidedly unfair tactics.
Voters expect candidates for governor or Congress to be partisans because those candidates run on public policy agendas pushed by one party or another. But judges are supposed to be fair and impartial, without political agendas, and guided only by the state and federal constitutions, not party platforms.
Even if you think politics shouldn’t be a part of judicial elections, you have to accept that under the First Amendment any judicial candidate that wants to run a partisan political campaign has that right. But the power to minimize politics in these elections rests not with the Constitution, but with the voters. Voters can either reward or punish judicial candidates if they think their campaigns are inappropriate or violate the spirit of judicial fairness and impartiality.
For the most part, voters in North Carolina and nationwide have rejected judicial candidates that have run on partisan political platforms. Sarah Parker and Mark Martin, North Carolina’s two most senior Supreme Court justices, received strong bipartisan support, even though she is a Democrat and he is a Republican, based on their experience and highly respected reputations for fairness.
Despite this nonpartisan system rankling those who want an all-Democratic or all-Republican court, a new national study suggests that North Carolina’s judicial elections are better than the partisan free-for-alls of other states.
The report is from the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. The findings conclude that Americans who live in states that hold partisan judicial elections are more cynical toward the courts than Americans who live in states that do not hold partisan elections. Partisan judicial elections foster the belief that "judges are just politicians in robes."
The study also finds that partisan judicial elections also decrease public trust that state courts are operating in the best interest of the American people and that the courts are fair and impartial.
That should come as no surprise. For decades, we’ve seen so much nasty negative advertising from candidates for Senate, Congress and governor that most voters conclude that all politicians must be corrupt.
So long as we have judicial elections, politics will always find a way to seep into campaigns for the court. But by minimizing partisan political agendas, hopefully we can hold judges up to a higher standard than politicians, and help maintain the public confidence in our courts that is eroding in other states.
Chris Heagarty is the Robert Morgan Senior Research Fellow with the N.C. Center for Voter Education, a Raleigh-based nonprofit and nonpartisan organization dedicated to improving elections in North Carolina.