Judicial elections have become a controversial topic. Not only are the elections themselves full of attacks and counter jabs, but many question whether judges even should be elected. Two recent accounts, and one forthcoming, are worth noting.
The St. Louis Post Dispatch had an editorial yesterday on efforts in Missouri to get rid of the current system of appointing judges and adopt an "Illinois model" of elections. The PD is not happy with this effort to elect. From their perch on the western shore of the Mississippi River, they got to watch the 2004 Illinois Supreme Court race that smashed national spending records, and in 2006 they got to watch Appellate and Circuit Court races that drew national interest by featuring polarizing TV attack ads funded by large contributions from special interest groups. Not surprisingly, they don't want *that* kind of judicial election to cross the water. Check out the editorial.
And to our north, Wisconsin voters resoundingly support a plan to offer public financing for judicial candidates who eschew special interest funding. A poll, conducted by American Viewpoint on behalf of Justice at Stake, found that nearly 2/3 of Wisconsinites support the plan, while just one in four oppose it. The results echo the findings of a survey we conducted among Illinois voters shortly after that 2004 Supreme Court race that found that voters of both parties wanted to give judicial candidates an opportunity to opt out of the special interest funding rat race.
No one disputes that the judiciary plays a unique role in Illinois government: not administrator, not advocate, but impartial decider of disputes. The third branch has been struggling in recent years with elections that look more and more like elections for the other two branches, with opposition research, position papers, and attach ads. That's why, rather than adopting our broken model of judicial elections, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Illinois all ought to be looking to North Carolina and their system of publicly funded judicial races as a better fix for judicial elections.
A new book, Democratic Renewal: A Call to Action from America's Heartland, is to be released next week by the Midwest Democracy Network with perspectives on judicial elections across the region. Go to the MDN site next week for more information.