Friday, April 10, 2009

Column for Dane101: Judging Wisconsin Elections


I write a column for a local blog called Dane101, which focuses on issues pertaining to Dane County, Wisconsin. I will be posting my columns periodically on this blog as well, but do check out their site too. It's chock-full of goodies for Dane County residents. Judging Wisconsin Elections

The method we use to select judges in Wisconsin -- by direct election -- is admirable in that it gives the people the power to appoint them. But like anything else good in this world, there is a caveat: our judicial elections, especially in recent years, have become increasingly political.

This is problematic because judges are meant to be impartial; yet it’s clear within the past few elections (this year’s included) where our State Supreme Court justices’ allegiances stand ideologically. Wisconsin citizens shouldn’t know the verdict our courts make before a case is heard -- we need impartiality, not ideology, on our benches.

At the same time, it’s na├»ve to believe that anyone, judicial candidates included, can be above the politics inherent within elections. It’s only natural that citizens will want to know where the candidates stand on important issues, and often they want to know based off a political stance.

At issue within the selection of judges and justices in Wisconsin are two main questions: first, to what degree do we believe the public to be informed enough to select someone to perform the complicated duties of a judge? And second, how exactly do we want to go about funding such elections, if we do indeed continue to have them?

Let’s start first with finances. We have seen in recent years how outside groups have hijacked the elections by distorting the images of judicial candidates, often unfairly. This practice misinforms the public and distracts us from the real issues that matter. One solution could be removing all third-party advertising, but are we prepared to remove the right of these parties to express genuine concerns in order to remove those that don’t? Another solution might involve creating an advertising board to “weed out” those “bad” ads, but this merely shifts the politicization of the election from the candidates to the board members.

Another difficulty with finances is that it costs an arm and a leg to run in the first place. Some have suggested using public financing in order to remedy this problem, but many are skeptical of using taxpayer dollars in order to finance a campaign that some might not support.

These problems aside, there is still the difficulty in trusting the people to pick judicial candidates. That may sound un-democratic, but there exists a difference between electing a legislator to write laws that reflect a constituency’s attitude and selecting a judge to protect the rights of all -- as is often the case, those two ideals don’t always go together. A charismatic leader is fine for determining what laws the people want passed, but when it comes to people’s rights (specifically, the rights of the minority), the will of a populist majority isn’t always looking out for what’s best.

It may be better, then, to just skip the entire process of having an election and model our state’s judicial selections process after that of the federal government’s, and just have the governor select someone to the court with legislative approval. This doesn’t remove the politicization by any means -- judges and justices will still be scrutinized over who seated them. But it does remove a lengthy and expensive elections process in our state, and provides swift appointment to the courts without the need to exploit the people’s desires through campaign promises. Judges shouldn’t be making those promises in the first place.

Whatever your opinion on the matter, whether or not you agree or disagree with these sentiments, it’s clear that Wisconsin is in dire need of judicial reform. Contact your local legislators and tell them we’ve had enough -- we need change to our selections process.

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