Gavels and Ballot Boxes

Judges are the final stop in the line of checks and balances, and so they occupy a sensitive place in our form of government. Federal judges and judges in a dozen or so states are appointed. In most states, judges are elected. Whenever someone gets upset with the judiciary, you can be sure that how judges are chosen can also become sensitive.

Judges in Illinois are elected, and the trend in judicial races is making some people wonder if these elections aren’t a lot like a three ring circus. Last year saw candidates' supporters dumpster diving and mud-slinging. Special interest groups ran most of the ads, hijacking candidates’ public outreach efforts. And voters can seem arbitrary: Pennsylvania voters this week turned out their Chief Justice in outrage over a pay increase, which has nothing to say about the quality of his rulings and which he didn’t even vote for. As messy as elections are, isn’t there a better way?

Appointed systems are controversial in their own way: polls and elections show that voters are very reluctant to give up their right to choose judges. If there’s one rule voters take to heart, it’s Winston Churchill’s dictum that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

Elections don’t have to be as messy as they have been, but the early signs are not good for Illinois’ 2006 races. It’s too soon to tell for certain whether the circus is coming back to town, but the clowns are beginning to line up. With a year to go before next General Election, let’s hope that judicial campaigns take 2004 as an object lesson, not a roadmap. Or maybe we should start this campaign with a discussion of alternatives to the current system of privately-funded campaigns?