Columnists > Voices

Total recall

Finding a third way between lifetime appointment and election of judges

Issue: "Snakepit," Feb. 11, 2006

Congratulations, Samuel Alito! And congratulations, USA: It now looks like we have four out of nine justices who will not legislate from the bench. But we still have a structural problem in our federal judiciary, one that is hard to solve.

For anyone who believes in the omnipresence of sin, the Supreme Court has always been a troubling institution. The anti-federalist New York Journal complained in 1788, during the debate about whether to ratify the Constitution, that some justices would twist the law as they saw fit: "They will not confine themselves to any fixed or established rules."

The Journal saw only one way to stop such abuse: "When great and extraordinary powers are vested in any man, or body of men, which in their exercise, may operate to the oppression of the people, it is of high importance that powerful checks should be formed to prevent the abuse of it." The Journal, though, did not have a specific recommendation, only that the Court "ought to be liable to be called to account . . . by some body of men."

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"Some body," yes, but which? Pleasant as it might be for the Senate to call to account David Souter or Anthony Kennedy for disappointing so decidedly those who appointed them or worked hard to confirm them, the judiciary cannot be a separate but equal branch of the federal government if its members maintain their jobs only through the indulgence of another branch.

The only body capable of reining in runaway justices, without creating judicial subservience to Congress or to the executive branch, is the body from which, according to the Constitution, all three branches derive their authority: "We the People." If the goal is to keep judges humble, making them run for office and then for reelection will do the trick.

The Constitution did not set up voting for judges but voters in some states-most notably, Texas-do elect judges through direct partisan elections. The problem with electing judges, though, is elections, which these days means dialing for dollars and speechifying on what may be the subject of future judicial rulings.

Texas' seven score years of electing judges shows how to keep judges lassoed. The bad news is that candidates for the Texas Supreme Court have to raise millions of dollars, with much of the money coming from lawyers, law firms, and litigants who are appealing to that same court.

Furthermore, the judicial and political temperaments vastly differ, so a good politician is as likely to be a good judge as a football team captain is to be a chess master. Does Sam Alito make a good stump speech? Probably not, but who cares?-except in Texas we'd have to care.

I'm watching from my Austin vantage point now the attempt by Don Willett to win election to the Texas Supreme Court; our governor last year appointed him to an open seat, and now he has to run like crazy in the March 7 GOP primary and then in the general election. I knew and spent time with Don when he worked for Governor George W. Bush in developing compassionate conservatism in Texas. He's smart, highly disciplined, hard-working, and fair, with all the characteristics needed for good judging, but he's not a pandering politician and it's weird that he has to hit the hustings day after day.

So is there a middle road between the extremes of non-accountability and electioneering? It seems to me that California has the better system: The governor appoints judges, but voters can remove those who go wild on the bench, and did so 20 years ago after California Chief Justice Rose Bird voted against the death penalty in all 61 of the capital punishment cases that came before her.

Californians saw that she was substituting her own opinions for the laws and precedents upon which judicial decisions should be made. The successful anti-Bird campaign ran television commercials featuring the children of the victims of the murderers whose sentences Ms. Bird had voted to reverse. California judges don't have to run and keep running for office, but they are not beyond recall.

Maybe that's the approach for the whole country: No lifetime tenure, no recurring elections, but a check on abuse.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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