Why We Should Elect Judges

In the days after the election, everyone from Republican partisans to Steve Blow raised up a clarion call we’ve heard before:

Why do we elect judges? Isn’t there a better way?

Well, in short, there may be a better way to elect judges, but there is not a better way to get judges than through elections. As Churchill once said of democracy: It’s not perfect, but it’s better than all the other options.

The truth is, there really are only two good options:
1) Elections of some sort.
2) Appointments of some sort.

And while there are flaws to the first method, there are grave problems with the second.

When people complain about judicial elections, they do so for two main reason. They say:
1) “The judicial elections are controlled by ‘special interests.'”

Then, they say:
2) “We don’t know anything about these judges, the ballot is too confusing. How can we know who to vote for?!”
(This is the view Steve Blow took in a column a week or so before election day…)

As to the first concern….

Lawyers do contribute to many judicial campaigns. But they contribute in varying amounts, and some judicial races get almost zero dollars. Some of the most recent judicial campaigns were run on shoestring budgets funded only by the candidate’s family and close friends. Others did get more total dollars from lawyers. However, I believe you will find is that –like many corporations on the national scene– many lawyers eventually contribute money to both side of many campaigns. (And some will probably do so even more in the next election cycle…)

My own sense of most judicial elections is that there is little control or influence by the funders, whoever they are. Most of the candidates I know put up their own yardsigns, set up their own fundraisers, and used their own close family and friends as their “staff.” If there were cookies to be baked, their Mom’s baked them. If there were envelopes to be stuffed, their childhood friends stuffed them. Far from being manipulated by donations from lawyers, most campaigns were seriously grassroots efforts with little frills.

In fact, the grassroots nature of them can actually restore your faith in democracy.

I will wait to comment on the second “concern” about judicial elections (“the ballot is too long, and we don’t know these people”) until later in this essay. For now, let’s turn to the other option: appointed judges.

Not A-Political, Just Differently-Political
Getting judges through an appointive system is seen by its proponents as an “a-political” solution. The idea is that some small group of people would recommend names to the governor –perhaps three-at-a-time for each open post– and that the governor would then do the actual appointing.

Sounds good on the surface. But the truth is there are serious political concerns in this model too. This model, contrary to the myth around it, is not “a-political,” it’s just political in a different way.

And anybody who doubts it should remember what is currently going on in our state surrounding the issue of new coal burning electric plants proposed by the Governor and TXU. This process is overseen by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). As you can see here, the TCEQ is run by three political appointees, nominated by the Governor.

Surely, you have read the stories: local and county municipalities around the state worry that the green light is about to be given to dozens of coal plants without any “vote” by them or their local constituents. (a story in today’s DMN estimates that the East Texas plants would result in more than 250 premature deaths each year..)

In other words, a highly controversial, seriously and long-term environmental decision, possibly affecting the health of millions of Texans, is being left up to the oversight of a group appointed by our governor, with no “vote” from the people.

That’s what would happen if we to move to the appointment of judges.

The opponents of judicial elections complain about the problems inherent in lawyer’s contributing to judicial campaigns. But think of what would be the case with appointed judges: The appointing body (even if their task is just to send three names up to the governor…) would, in all probability, be made up of…whom?

Lawyers!!!

Talk about undue influence!!! And just who would the governor appoint to this body? Do you really trust the governor to be non-partisan? Are you willing to take that risk?

Is the TCEQ acting in a non-partisan way toward these coal plants?

No way.

In fact, an appointive system would simply take control of judicial elections AWAY from the people, and put it INTO the hands of a few special interest lawyers, handpicked by the sitting governor. In a truly paradoxical way, it would not eliminate “special interests” from being a part of judicial selection, but instead guarantee it!!!

For all its flaws, at least with elections, we all get the chance to say our “yea” or “nea” to these candidates.

If you are a Republican in Dallas, right at this particular moment in time, perhaps appointing our judges seems like a good idea. But how will you feel in ten years, when a Democratic governor is in charge? That will happen at some point. (Impossible, you say? Two words: Dallas County).

Here’s the bottom line on appointed judges:

Appointing judges is only a good idea if you happen to agree with the politics of the current governor.

And that’s why they’re a bad idea, no matter you may feel right now.

So, what about the second complaint about elections: that there’s too many names on the ballot, and that no one can know about all these candidates?

I will turn to that issue now…

Turn Out, Tune In
First off, a word to voters. You complain that the ballot is too long, and that no one can know all these folks.

Well, me ask you this:

Do you take the time to get to know all the other candidates on your ballot?
Did you know
all the candidates running for State Representative in the Dallas area (or, even in your district), before you stepped in the ballot box?
Could you
name the candidates for Railroad Commissioner before the moment you saw the touch screen?
Do you even know what a Railroad Commissioner
does?

One a Tuesday this Fall, when I was guest hosting the radio show with my friend, Charles Geilich (before it was bagged by KNON) we decided to do an electoral quiz. We asked our listeners to name the candidates for US Senator in the State of Texas. Somebody finally did. But it was probably five or six callers before anyone actually knew the answer; more than enough time for them to “Google it” and call in.

The point is, our ignorance of our electoral process extends far beyond our local judicial elections. And it’s disingenuous for anyone to act as if this problem has somehow become horribly worse over night because of them. We were ignorant of our elections, and our duty as voters, long before the 42 judicial races of this cycle. Their appearance this time just put a hard spotlight on a problem that was already there.

And this time, candidates were out there, and candidates were available for you to get to know. At least on the Democratic side (all I can speak to), candidates attended hundreds of local events –parades, conventions, neighborhood meetings, elementary school forums, church and mosque services, bar associations, even the Greek Food Festival– and were around for any normal human being to meet, greet, and question in the flesh. If you wanted to know about candidates, there were plenty of chances to do so over these past months.

So, in part, I blame ALL OF US for allowing ourselves to become so ignorant, and for then believing that the solution is to take a vote away from us, and give it to some “special interest group.”

Yes, I blame us for not being more informed. But I blame one other group too.

I Blame the Media
Usually, this is something you hear conservatives doing. But I actually DO blame the media for a part of why we’re so dissatisfied with our system of electing judges. And I’m frustrated with several of our local opinion columnists for blasting the idea of judicial elections (in columns and blogs), when
the very paper they work for is part of the problem and part of the unrealized solution.

Here’s what I mean…

Every Saturday morning during the Fall, I pick up my Dallas Morning News to discover a special “High School Football” section. Apparently, every Friday evening, the Morning News is able to dispatch dozens of reporters to small and obscure stadiums all over the great 100-mile radius of the Metroplex. Apparently, they find it important enough to devote 6-8 pages of coverage every Saturday morning to local high school football.

I am not questioning the wisdom of this. I am simply asking:

If they can do it for High School football, why can’t they do it for local elections?

Why can’t they –for the entire length of the election season (say mid-September on…)– devote similar space (6-8 pages) once a week to local elections?

Imagine how well informed the voters could be with that kind of coverage!!!

They could create charts to explain the difference between a “County Court at Law” and a “State District Judge.” They could print maps, showing the different state representative districts. They could literally run at least ONE story on just about every local race!!! Not just editorials (and I am NOT dissing their fine editorials), but real stories, focusing on the issues and the differences between local candidates.

I know, I know….everyone will say, “But nobody wants to read that stuff.”

To which I have two responses:

1) The media should have no higher calling, and public service goal, than enabling voters to be informed, and
2) If you don’t read that kind of stuff, then how can you ever be informed enough to vote for anyone?

It can be done. You can be informed. More than 70,000 voters during this election voted a non-straight ticket for either party. In fact, looked at from a certain perspective, no candidate won any election in Dallas County without some of these clearly discerning voters.

We need more of them, not less.

But to vote well, you’ve got to vote informed. And that takes effort, but it can be done.

You can argue the merits of “partisan” vs. “non-partisan” judicial elections, and I will not be able to respond nearly as forcefully against the latter. But I know that however we elect our judges, an elected system beats an appointive system any day, because it leaves the crucial job of selecting one whole branch of our government’s leaders in the hands of “we the people.”

And at the local level, that’s never bad.

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He has been Senior Pastor of Northaven United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas since 2001. During his tenure, church membership has grown almost 30 percent, and a completely new church facility (sanctuary and education building) has been constructed. Northaven is a leading progressive Christian congregation in the Southwest. Northaven is an eclectic collection of gay and straight families, artists, musicians, theater folks, academic theologians, lawyers and judges (go figure), socially conscious community activists, people who don't "check their brain at the door," and a wide array of others who either see it as their "last chance" inside the "institutional church," or their first trip back in decades. Eric is an avid blogger and published author.  Eric is also an award-winning singer-songwriter, who performs throughout Texas and the Southwest. He's an engaging live performer whose first CD was released in 2000. His songs have won honorable mention in both the Billboard and Great American song contests; and he's been a finalist in the 5th Street Festival and South Florida Folk Festival songwriter competitions. Eric is also a leader of Connections, a unique band comprised of United Methodist clergy and layfolk from throughout North Texas. Connections performs "cover shows" of artists like Dan Fogelberg, Chicago, Eagles, Doobie Brothers, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor and others. Their shows draw crowds of between 300 and 1,000 fans, and they have raised more than $240,000 dollars for worthy charities. Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He's a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named "best judge" by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County. She was re-elected for a third term in 2010. They have the world's best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. (As always, if you like this post, then "like" this on Facebook by clicking the box below, so others can see too...)

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