The Atlantic reported this week on elected Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett speaking out against the elected judicial system. Here are some of Justice Willett’s comments:
The ACS study raises difficult and consequential questions, familiar questions that frankly can’t be raised enough. A former Texas Governor, Sull Ross, once said, “The loss of public confidence in the judiciary is the greatest curse that can ever befall a nation.” I don’t disagree. The Texas Constitution, however, mandates a judiciary elected on a partisan ballot. Calling this system “imperfect” is a G-rated description, and I’m intimately acquainted with the myriad drawbacks, and they are plentiful.
On the one hand, Texans insist on their right to elect their judges (though they can’t name any of us). On the other hand, they harbor suspicions about the role of money that ACS chronicles. I’ve long favored smart judicial-selection reform — every member of my court does — and every legislative session, reform measures are filed … and then they fail. Both major parties and lots of activist groups in Texas oppose changing the current partisan elected system. Interestingly, the business lobby and tort-reform groups all favor scrapping our current judicial-selection system.
In other words, those who allegedly benefit from the current system aggressively favor replacing it. But the status quo is deeply entrenched, and legislatively, the wheels always come off……
No doubt contributions play a huge role in determining political victors and victims, in judicial races no less than in other branches. My name ID hovers between slim and none, and voters know far more about their American Idol judges than their Supreme Court judges. The crass bottom line is that you spend 99 percent of your time raising a colossal fortune that you then use to bombard voters in hopes of branding your name onto a tiny crevice in their short-term memory for a few fleeting moments.
I’d be shocked if people didn’t look askance at such a flawed system. I do, too, having had close-up experience spanning several contested statewide races. Nothing would please me, or my wife, more than if my last election were my last election, and between now and 2018, Texans would opt for a smarter system. Hopeful? Yep. Optimistic? Nope.
I found interesting the comment that unless an election is going on, Supreme Court judges have no name ID. As an experiment, I asked my legal assistant–who has been working in the industry for years–if she could name any Mississippi Supreme Court Justices. She couldn’t.
What percentage of non-attorney people in Mississippi could name a single Supreme Court Justice? I’m guessing it’s less than 5%. How would you feel about this if you were on the Mississippi Supreme Court? Vulnerable in every election cycle to a well funded opponent?
My point is I don’t want a Supreme Court Justice to have to feel anything about this. We need an appointed system that removes the issue from the equation.
There are fewer proponents of an elected judiciary than there used to be. But Justice Willett is right: that doesn’t mean that the system is going anywhere anytime soon.