Front page and above the fold in the Washington Post on Sunday was this piece on the increased profile of, and spending on judicial races. As groups with particular interest in who sits on the bench funnel money into the races, the fair and impartial judiciary runs smack into political posturing.
Some of the most vocal critics of this new paradigm for judicial elections are Supreme Court justices:
The heightened spending and increasingly aggressive tone of the contests have alarmed nonpartisan groups and judges from around the country. Retired Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a longtime critic of judicial elections, has taken the lead in denouncing what she has called the "arms race" in campaign fundraising, and at a recent conference she presided over at Georgetown University Law Center, two of her like-minded former colleagues -- Justices Stephen G. Breyer and David H. Souter -- were in the audience.
"The reputation of the American judiciary is in the hands of the state courts," Breyer said. The rising demands on judges to raise money for their expensive campaigns -- plus the spending of outside groups -- could lead to the impression that the courthouse door "is open to some rather than the door is open to all.''
As these judicial races become more high-stakes, the urge to more aggressively define themselves on the issues has led some candidates to make blanket statements about their stand on issues (the article mentions abortion in particular). This campaign tactic flies in the face of a judge's role as impartial arbiter, but it's catnip for interests who want to funnel money into the race to make sure the court system rules in their favor.
As the debate over electing versus appointing judges rages on, several states are taking steps to provide public financing for judicial candidates, giving them an alternative to taking money from groups with a particular stake in their decisions. North Carolina led the way, now New Mexico plans to offer the option and several other states including Washington and Georgia are considering the program.