Monday, June 18, 2007

Financing Judicial Elections

The New York Times has an editorial denouncing the recent increase in fund-raising in state judicial elections.

By 2004, the amount raised by candidates for states’ highest courts had reached nearly $47 million nationwide, up from $29 million in 2002. In 2006, total fund-raising decreased to $34.4 million, largely owing to a decrease in the number of contested races. But the median amount raised by individual candidates in 2006 soared to nearly $244,000 — from the 2004 median of about $202,000.

Television ads, until recently a rarity in top-level state court races, are now the norm. Such ads ran last fall in 10 of the 11 states where such judges were up for election, compared with just 4 of 18 states in 2000. Average spending on television airtime per state was also up, much of it for 15- and 30-second attack ads. In the race for Alabama’s chief justice seat, the second-most-expensive judicial race ever, 17,830 spots were run on behalf of candidates.

The idea, of course, is that money and judicial elections do not mix. This makes sense to a certain extent; the notion that judges can be "bought off" is frightening. However, this editorial seems to suggest that advertising in judicial elections is inherently bad. I do not see why; advertising is required for an informed electorate, especially when it comes to these sorts of elections. Judicial elections have long been characterized by extremely low voter turnout (most judicial elections are held either in odd years or during the spring elections, meaning that there are no Presidential, Congressional, and very few gubernatorial elections to bring out the voters), and perhaps as a consequence, many uncontested races. As a matter of democracy, this is shameful. In this light, advertising could be seen as a good thing; it "informs" (I put that in quotes because I don't know how much true information one can gather from a campaign ad) the public, hopefully inspiring them to vote.

What we're talking about here is competition. Increased spending isn't a sign of impending doom, it is a sign of increased competition, or democracy in action, if you will. Certainly, it is troubling to think that whoever raises the most money can become a judge just like that (although, the editorial does point out that the victor in fund-raising is the victor in the election in only 68% of elections), but it is even more troubling to think that someone can run unopposed and become a judge just like that.

Judicial elections are meant to secure judicial accountability. Making judicial candidates be more vocal seems to be a step toward accomplishing that. Of course, there are plenty of worthwhile arguments against judicial accountability, but such arguments would require denouncing judicial elections per se, which this editorialist seems hesitant to do. But that makes me wonder: why support judicial elections if you do not support judicial accountability? As long as judicial elections are around, I think this trend (i.e. getting more interests - yes, even business interests - involved) is a good thing. After all, if the choices are democracy with no one involved and democracy with more people involved, I'll take the latter. Of course, neither of these choices may be good as a method of choosing judges (I, for some inexplicable reason, favor executive appointment), but that's not the point. The point is that the trend we're seeing is an improvement from the previous way of going about things.

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