justice for sale

how should judges be selected?

"Putting courts into politics, and compelling judges to become politicians, in many jurisdictions has almost destroyed the traditional respect for the bench," one commentator famously wrote on the causes of popular dissatisfaction with the administration of justice. And this was back in 1906. For most of the century since that time, lawyers, judges, law professors, and other court reformers have wrestled with the problem of how to select judges in a way that remains consistent with American democratic traditions and still obeys the popular will.

Currently, there are six methods of selecting judges, each variations on three basic models: appointment, election, and a third idea--"merit selection" that has been the major "reform" alternative of this century. First conceived in 1913, but not adopted in any form by a U.S. state until Missouri voted for it in 1940, merit selection, one observer remarked, "did not immediately sweep the country." This is an understatement: The next state to follow Missouri was Alaska in 1956, and this was after New Mexico only mustered 37.1% of its voters in a failed bid to adopt the reform. Over the next several decades, at least ten different states failed to get more than 50% of its voters to support "merit selection" when it appeared on the ballot.

What are the merits of merit selection? What can be learned from one states' attempt--Texas'--to try to reform its manner of judicial selection? If the nineteenth century saw the undoing of the Founding Fathers' vision of an appointed judiciary, and the twentieth century has been dominated by debate over the merit selection reform, what will be the shape or nature of reform in the new millenium?

a spotlight on texas

The justice system in Texas has been scrutinized for over a decade since a major television expose probed the influence of campaign money on judicial decision-making. Now, with Texas Governor George W. Bush running strong for president, everything about the state, including its courts, is being examined. The Governor has been unequivocal in his support of judicial elections as the way to select judges in Texas, but others in the state--including many who are intimately involved or high-placed in the system--are searching for alternatives. (Note: Texas is one of three states whose judicial election process was examined in FRONTLINE's "Justice For Sale" report.)

interview with rodney ellis

a Texas legislator talks about the politics and big money in Texas judicial races and why he would like judges to be appointed, not elected.
interview with tom phillips

Dissatisfied with the conduct of partisan judicial elections in his state, Texas State Supreme Court Chief Justice Phillips argues for campaign finance reformto limit money's influence in the races.
interview with kim ross

A lobbyist for the Texas Medical Association explains how his organization spearheaded a campaign to take back the Texas courts after decades of a "pro-plaintiff" majority.
interview with john hill

A lawyer and former Chief Justice of the Texas State Supreme Court, Hill left the Court in 1988. He now works with a non-profit group pushing for the appointment of judges in Texas.
the courts and the legal profession in texas - the insider's perspective

For years, Texans and court-watchers nationwide have formed strong opinions about the quality of justice in Texas. But what do the states' judges, lawyers, and court personnel really think? The revealing answers come in this last phase of a comprehensive study by the Texas Supreme Court.
Public Trust and Confidence in the Courts and Legal Profession in Texas

This study of trust and confidence in the Texas courts and legal profession was conducted in response to the growing perception that citizens' respect for the courts and the legal profession had weakened. The results provide a surprising counterpoint to the views of the "insiders."
Payola Justice-How Texas Supreme Court Justice Raise Money from Litigants

Over ten years after 60 MINUTES aired a report on judicial corruption in Texas, this study conducted by Texans for Public Justice concludes: "While the faces and ideologies of the justices and their paymasters have changed--justices continue to take enormous amounts of money from litigants who bring cases before the court. . . justice is still for sale in the Texas Supreme Court."
The Rise and Fall of a Reform Bill

How even a relatively minor change in the conduct of judiciary elections in Texas proved too big a step for Governor Bush
Making the Case for Merit Selection

For more than 75 years, reformers have been arguing the merits of "merit selection" of judges. In a recent, comprehensive study, Jona Goldschmidt of the American Judicature Society weighs all of the evidence, pro and con, and still comes down strongly in favor of the judicial selection reform.
ABA Changes Model Judicial Ethics Rules To Reform Election Campaign

Acting on the report of its Task Force on Lawyers' Political Contributions, the ABA amended its model ethics code to impose contribution limits and disclosure standards on judges campaigning for seats, as well as requiring judges to disqualify themselves from hearing cases involving parties who have contributed to the judges' campaign in excess of the established limits.
The  ABA Ad Hoc Committee on Judicial Campaign Finance

In the Summer of 1999, the American Bar Association affirmed its commitment to the merit election of judges, and urged all jurisdictions to enact constitutional provisions setting out procedures for the merit selection and either appointment or retention election of their judges
Reform Efforts  in Ohio and other states

In 1999, Ohio, one of the state leaders in judicial election reform, enacted tough new rules for judges and lawyers involved in judicial campaigns. In recent years, other states have also explored different reform options.
The Case for Partisan Judicial Elections

The Federalist Society is a conservative lawyers' group located in Washington, D.C. This white paper on judicial selections argues that partisan judicial elections have "substantial advantages over the alternatives not least in that they provide an additional, significant measure of self-government to voters."
(Federalist Society, 2001)
Public Funding for Judicial Elections: Forget It

In this article for the Cato Institute, a libertarian research group, author Robert A. Levy says that "there may be good arguments for merit selection of judges followed by periodic, unopposed retention elections. But contested elections raise serious questions. They've become inordinately expensive, create a perception of impropriety, and may produce judges beholden to deep-pocketed donors with recurring business before the court."
(CATO Institute, Aug. 13, 2001)

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