THIS NEWSPAPER has been advocating, unsuccessfully, reform in the way circuit court judges are chosen in Maryland for more decades than we care to remember. Those judges are elected here, in contests in which they have to run against non-incumbents who are not bound by the canons of judicial conduct. Since more than one judge's term can expire in the same election cycle, it is not uncommon to have elections in which colleagues on the bench in a circuit in effect run against each other, since the lowest vote-getters among all candidates, sitting judges and challengers, lose.
Recently, U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens weighed in on this issue, with a very blunt, almost to the point of injudiciousness, attack on raw politics and judges. We hope it will help in the effort by reformers (such as members of the Commission on the Future of Maryland Courts) to amend the state Constitution to end contested election of judges. Here are some excerpts from the justice's speech, delivered to the American Bar Association.
"Persons who undertake the task of administering justice should not be required -- indeed they should not be permitted -- to finance campaigns or to curry the favor of voters by making predictions or promises about how they will decide cases before they have heard any evidence or argument," he said.
Justice Stevens made it clear he was talking about even general remarks: "A campaign promise to be 'tough on crime' or to 'enforce the death penalty' is evidence of bias that should disqualify a candidate from sitting in criminal cases," he said.
It's not just bad judges or good politicians who are affected by the election system. All judges are. Justice Stevens told the ABA, "Making the retention of judicial office dependent on the popularity of the judge inevitably affects the decisional process in high visibility cases, no matter how competent and how conscientious the judge may be."
In less judicial but very illustrative language, the Supreme Court justice captured the absurdity of subjecting judges to the election process. "It is akin to allowing football fans to elect the referee." he said.
Pub Date: 8/26/96