Wednesday, June 14, 2006
Los Angeles Times, With Nonchalance, Calls for End to Judicial Elections
Tucked within the editorial in the Times on Sunday criticizing the reappointment of Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs was a position on a weighty issue:
“Janavs’ defeat illustrates one of the problems with judicial elections: Voters don’t know what they’re doing. The solution to that problem is to either further politicize judicial elections and put candidates in the same position as their counterparts running for partisan office — raising campaign cash and making promises — or take judicial elections out of the hands of voters and make judgeships appointive only. This page prefers the second option.”
An editorial, by nature, does not reflect the position of a “page” of a newspaper; it’s a statement of the newspaper. It is surprising that the Los Angeles Times would so off-handedly take a stance in favor of such a major political restructuring as ending judicial elections.
In proclaiming its support for dismantling the present system, it would seem incumbent on the Times to tell what it would propose putting in its place, and how that system would be better. Indeed, there are serious drawbacks to other systems commonly proposed. Retention elections for trial judges afford no real incentive to mount a campaign against someone who is not doing the job. Lifetime appointments, as in the federal system, foster imperiousness.
We agree with the Times that with respect to judicial elections, “[v]oters don’t know what they’re doing.” Laypersons should not be empowered to decide which aspirants serve as judges, any more than they should decide which doctors should serve as chiefs of staff at public hospitals.
However, we are mystified by the statement in the editorial that the “solution” to voter ignorance “is to either further politicize judicial elections” or to end judicial elections. Politicizing judicial elections to a greater extent than they are now politicized is urged by none and is no “solution.” The status quo is obviously to be preferred to that.
If a system entailing no judicial elections is better than the status quo, it would be nice if the Times would let its readers in on what it has in mind.
(In an editorial on Thursday, the Times commented that “[t]he ouster of Janavs is Exhibit A in the case against judicial elections,” but did not yet take a forthright position in favor of abolishing such elections, and was no more expansive in that June 8 piece than it was on Sunday as to what system it would envision replacing elections.)
The notion that there are only three choices—leaving things as they, increasing politicization of judicial races, or ending judicial elections—is errant.
The Long Beach Press Telegram has another approach, set forth in an editorial on Thursday. It would put the Los Angeles County Bar Assn. ratings of judicial candidates “right under voters’ noses”—that is, on the ballot. (That idea has also been put forth by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Richard Neidorf.) The infirmity in the suggestion is that LACBA is a private organization, not bound by requirements of due process, its decisions not subject to writ review. On the other hand, official status could be lent evaluations by a panel set up like and functioning like the State Bar Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation. Just as the JNE Commission provides input to the governor on prospective appointees, a State Bar Commission on Candidate Evaluations could provide guidance to voters in the form of ratings appearing on the ballot. The governor may disregard ratings, as could the electorate. As thus tweaked, the Press Telegram’s idea is worthy of consideration.
The Press Telegram editorial went on to say:
“Here’s another suggestion, from Long Beach City Attorney Bob Shannon: Raise the bar, so to speak. Insist that candidates be ranked as qualified or better, and keep the unqualified off the ballot.”
If the evaluations were made by a body with official status and with set criteria, the idea of barring candidacies of those not making the grade would also be deserving of discussion. The Committee on Bar Examiners decides which would-be lawyers may practice and which may not; it might well be argued that official determinations of which lawyers could and couldn’t attain judgeships would be appropriate. Indeed, there could be a system of certification of lawyers as being eligible for either election or appointment to the bench, with such a process possibly including a written examination on court procedures.
Our own view is that judicial elections should continue but with the electors being comprised of those with the competence to make the decisions and the interest in the composition of the judiciary: lawyers and judges. Judicial selection could be made in tandem with State Bar Board of Governors elections.
In any event, it is clear that the choices for change—all of which would require a state constitutional amendment—are not so restricted as the Times would suppose.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company