Judicial Elections

Are races for judgeships bad for justice?

By Kenneth Jost, April 24, 2009

The United States is the only country in the world that requires most judges to face popular elections to gain or hold office. Today, as in the past, most judicial elections attract little attention. Over the past three decades, however, political parties and interest groups have spent millions of dollars on targeted races for state supreme courts in order to change the tribunals' political or ideological composition. Business groups succeeded in recent elections in West Virginia and Wisconsin in backing candidates who defeated incumbent justices and tilted the courts toward business interests. Defenders of judicial elections say they help make sure courts are accountable and responsive to the public. Critics say the special-interest funding and misleading campaign tactics of many judicial campaigns threaten the integrity of the justice system. Proposals for change, however, are making little headway. Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether to require judges to bow out of cases involving major campaign supporters.

The issues:

  • Should states take new steps to control campaign contributions or spending in judicial elections?
  • Should states adopt stricter rules for judges to recuse themselves?
  • Should states with judicial elections modify their rules for selecting judges?
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