Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor is concerned about the influence of interest groups on state judicial elections.
Voters generally don't express much interest in the election of judges. This year, as in years past, voter turnout in elections for judges was very low. But judicial elections, which occur in some form in 39 states, are receiving growing attention from those who seek to influence them. In fact, motivated interest groups are pouring money into judicial elections in record amounts. Whether or not they succeed in their attempts to sway the voters, these efforts threaten the integrity of judicial selection and compromise public perception of judicial decisions.
Focusing on judicial elections in Pennsylvania, O'Connor recommends replacing partisan judicial elections with merit-based selection or some other non-partisan system, among other "good government"-style reforms.
In the long term, a commitment to judicial independence will only come from robust civics education, starting at a very young age. Today, only a little more than one-third of Americans can name the three branches of government--much less explain the balance of power among them. If we lose appreciation for our government's structure and the role of the judiciary within it, it is only a matter of time before the judicial branch becomes just another political arm of the government. With the stakes so high, we cannot wait until the election cycle to educate the citizenry. We must start with civics education in our nation's schools.
I certainly agree that judicial elections are a problem - we elect all of our judges in Ohio - but I am skeptical that modest reforms will solve the underlying problems. Given how much is at stake in many state court decisions, so long as state judges are elected, I fear that the problems Justice O'Connor decries will persist. In my view, the only answer is to move away from direct election of judges.