Saturday, May 12, 2018

Laws and Customs

Washington, in the true populist tradition reflecting its heritage, has elected, non-partisan judges. At our recent Law Day celebration, the Supreme Court justice who spoke referred to it as a right we "would never surrender, and never exercise."

He was speaking more generally of the ignorance the voting public has of judicial candidates, but the quote was even truer than that, as is evidenced every time a judge retires. At least in our county, the judges never retire at a time that they could be replaced by an election. Thus, the governor must appoint a replacement.

There is an extensive vetting process through the governor's office, various attorney associations conduct panel discussions and make recommendations, and someone is chosen. None of the process is open to the public at large. At some point the new judge will have to run for re-election, but they will do so with the full weight of incumbency behind them. Since I have been practicing in the county, no one has upset a sitting judge or even run a serious campaign against one.

At the most recent judicial panel, someone raised the question of whether this practice was good or whether it thwarted the public participation that was intended to be part of the process. To my surprise, not a single candidate of four criticized it. They all spoke in favor of the current practices as weeding out unqualified candidates, as there is simply no way for the public to assess whether someone would be a good judge--the qualities that make for a good candidate are likely to be the opposite of those that would make for a good judge.

In the last round, the candidate that was chosen had already been serving as court commissioner for over a year. She'd been hired originally by the judges and the local bar had had ample chance to observe her in the courtroom and determine whether she reviewed her materials, kept up on the law, kept control of the courtroom, and rendered fair decisions. It was a good pick.

What is fascinating to me is how, in a time that is still strongly driven by the desire to rip out old inequities and replace customs with great systems of logic, yet customs grow up anyway. Logical systems are never quite enough to go on with.


Diary of an Autodidact said...

California too has an interesting hybrid system. Judges are generally appointed, but must sit for re-election every 10 years.

We actually had a judge lose one recently. Said judge was making it with his court clerk, and violated some ethical rules in the process...

One difference here, though, is that a judge CAN choose to retire simply by not running for re-election. Because of a bunch of retirements - and a serious backlog of unfilled judicial positions - a number of judges who have retired in our county have used this so that the voters can put someone in place immediately, rather than wait a year or two for the governor to vet and appoint someone. More recently, some Republican leaning judges have *probably* decided to retire this way in part because we have little chance of a Republican governor in the foreseeable future. I have no proof of this, but the rumor is definitely there. Not that politics are that big of issue in trial courts - judicial temperament, experience, and knowledge of the law are FAR more important.

Queen of Carrots said...

Interesting that it takes so long for a replacement. Ours are filled within a couple of months. Maybe being a judge is more fun up here?