The Closet Moderate: Judging the election

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Judging the election

Yesterday, Pennsylvania had its primary election. Most of the slots available were for judgeships, and most of the names on the ballot were unknown, even to people who pay attention to politics. In Philadelphia, the Democrats chose among thirty-three candidates for eleven positions. Each election cycle, would-be judges must go through a system that is onerous at best, and corrupt at worst, in order to secure the backing of the 67 ward leaders (or 69, the way the Democrats number the wards). They have to expend hundreds of thousands of dollars -- and that's just the "spending" they admit to. It's a crooked process to gain a job that is supposed to be incorrupt.

So what's the solution? Lots of people say judges ought to be appointed, and in some states they are. But is this a better answer? There's still the corrupting process, the insider deals, the fundraising (this time for the governor who appoints, rather than for the candidate himself) and the big machine politics. It might work for the few appellate judges, where the state Senate can exercise some oversight, but for all the trial-level judges? If the Senate examined them all thoroughly, they would have no time for anything else.

I have a better solution: pick trial judges randomly.


The wife and I have been watching Deadwood on DVD, which is where this epiphany came to me. On one episode, the powers that be decided to hold a trial over the murder of Wild Bill Hickok. The judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, and clerk are all chosen randomly from among the lawyers in town who submit their names. Now, I'm not saying Deadwood in 1876 was some virtuous city on a hill, but neither is Philadelphia in 2009. The difference is, in Deadwood everyone knew that the whole town was corrupt and self-interested, so they knew enough to keep things simple and unable to be rigged.

There should be some limit on who can be picked -- they should be lawyers, and should have had a significant amount of time in the profession, say, ten years. They should not have been convicted of a crime or sanctioned by the bar association for the last decade.

Judicial elections are a farce. Some voters go by the ward leaders' endorsements (bought and paid for). Other vote by gender, or ethnicity. One Philadelphia candidate even showcased his hatred of the Dallas Cowboys as a reason for electing him. And he won. It's a worthy cause, I admit, but is this method of picking judges qualitatively better than picking names from a hat?


Anonymous said...

In Philadelphia, we expect corruption. We just want our streets plowed when it's snowing.

Corey Goldiner said...

Picking trial lawyers randomly is what the process does now. If you have a JD, and you draw a good ballot spot you will become elected. If you have a JD, and a ballot spot you will likely not be elected.