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Monday, January 04, 2016

The Last Days of Elected Judges (1966 edition)

Yes on 3

Happy New Year! It’s great to be back at Prawfs for another go-round. I thought I would start with an unusual find: while cleaning out my parents’ basement last month, I came across a yellowed but otherwise pristine copy of the Intermountain Jewish News, dated November 4, 1966. The IJN was (and is) a significant paper for the Jewish community in Denver and the Rocky Mountain West, and the edition I found was printed just days before the November 1966 general election—the last time that Colorado’s state judges would run for office. In that same election, voters passed Amendment 3, which ushered in a merit selection system: judges would henceforth be chosen by the governor from a slate prepared by a nonpartisan nominating committee, and subjected to retention elections at the end of their terms. Put another way, on Election Day 1966, Colorado voters chose their judges at the ballot box while simultaneously removing their ability to do so in the future. Fifty years later, that 1966 edition of the IJN provides a nice snapshot of a judiciary—and an electorate—struggling to balance a tradition of direct democracy with the promise of fair and impartial courts.

Colorado was the fifth state to adopt a merit selection system, and advocates of merit selection had to overcome both 90 years of state history (judges had always been directly elected) and the sense that nothing was particularly wrong with the existing system. There had been relatively little scandal or symptoms of crisis in the state judiciary in the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, many of the men on the judicial ballot that November were widely viewed as persons of integrity, excellent jurists, and dedicated contributors to civic life. Sherman Finesilver, then seeking reelection to a state trial court position in Denver, would later serve nearly a quarter-century on the federal bench. Mitchel Johns was an active member of the local Elks lodge, and Saul Pinchick an active member of B’nai B’rith. Neil Horan, already an experienced incumbent, would survive the 1966 election and later preside over litigation concerning Colorado voters’ rejection of the 1976 Winter Olympics.

Pinchick

It was hard enough just to get merit selection on the ballot. The Colorado Bar Association (CBA) had recommended the end of partisan judicial elections as far back as 1940, when Missouri became the first state to adopt the merit selection system. But proposed ballot initiatives failed to make it through the Colorado legislature in 1949, 1957 and 1959. Still, support slowly grew. When yet another effort by the CBA failed in the legislature by one vote in 1965, the CBA and the League of Women Voters took to the streets and collected more than 47,000 signatures in favor of the ballot initiative. Merit selection, in the form of Amendment 3, would finally be up for a vote in 1966. It proposed sweeping changes to the Colorado Constitution, replacing direct election of judges with a system of nominating commissions, gubernatorial selection, retention elections, and formal judicial disciplinary measures.

The debate over Amendment 3 was vigorous and vocal in the months leading up to the election. Proponents urged adoption as a means of improving the overall quality of the judiciary, promising that judges would not be prone (or at least less prone) to the pull of partisan politics, and that nonpartisan nominating commissions could focus on finding the best people for the job. (Indeed, in a somewhat Pollyanna-ish take, proponents argued in the state’s 1966 voter guide that under merit selection, “The courts would be completely removed from politics.”) Opponents urged that citizens should not give up their right to directly choose judges, a method that both held judges directly accountable to the people and checked the influence of the governor on the judiciary.

The judicial candidates were caught in the middle of the debate. Amendment 3 was premised in part on the notion that elected judges were inferior to appointed ones. Candidates had to show that they were qualified and impartial, even as they had to work within the existing party system to have a chance at success. They walked this tightrope by tailoring their campaign ephemera for the most part to avoid any hint of politics--a strategy still used by judges even in highly partisan election states today. Only three of the ten candidates placing ads in that November 1966 edition of the IJN made mention of their party affiliation. Most emphasized only their professional qualifications: experience, professional skills, and ties to the local community.

Election Day proved to be a mixed bag for the incumbents. Justice Edward Day, a Democrat, was reelected to the state supreme court by the skin of his teeth, coming in third in the race for three open seats behind two Republican challengers. Justice Albert Frantz, who had each been elected in 1956 as part of a near-sweep by the Democrats, was not so lucky. He placed fourth in at-large balloting, just a few thousand votes behind Day, and lost his seat. The trial judges highlighted here—Pinchick, Horan, Johns, and Finesilver—were all reelected and became long-serving jurists.

Frantz

Amendment 3 also fared well on Election Day, passing by a margin of 53% to 47%. One key to victory for the merit selection proponents was the emphasis on retention elections: voters were not being asked to give up their franchise, but rather to exercise it in a different, ostensibly less partisan, way. It no doubt helped reformers as well that voters in 1966 reelected John Love, a popular and trusted governor, who would be charged with the final appointment decisions under the new system.

There are some useful lessons to be drawn from this history. Colorado’s shift in 1966 was certainly in part a product of bar association’s determination, the state’s political culture, and the era itself. But merit selection was also possible because it was presented as an integrated package of reforms. Nonpartisan selection commissions, gubernatorial appointment, retention elections, and a judicial discipline commission each provided a piece of the “quality judges” puzzle. (A final piece, judicial performance evaluation, was added in 1988.) Removing any of these components, or instituting them in a piecemeal way, would weaken both the appeal and the efficacy of the merit selection system.

The ghosts of 1966 may only live in basement files, but the issues surrounding judicial selection methods are far from settled. States continue to experiment with variations of contested judicial elections, merit selection, legislative appointment, and lifetime appointment. Nor is the federal judiciary immune from the larger discussion: Senator Ted Cruz recently called for retention elections—but only retention elections—for U.S. Supreme Court Justices. I will examine that idea more closely in a coming post.

Posted by Jordan Singer on January 4, 2016 at 01:41 PM in Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink

Comments

I think the elected judiciary works when there is a strong bar association. In Texas, the State Bar Association is active in endorsing and supporting candidates for election. In some cases, this has averted the election of an ideologically partisan candidate (the elections are partisan but candidates tend to run based on judicial temperament and philosophy as opposed to stands on specific issues). Another aspect is the involvement of the governor. In one instance, Governor Rick Perry endorsed an appellate judge running against an incumbent who had defeated his appointee in the prior election. In essence, a de facto gubernatorial appointment.

Many times incumbent judges may resign, and allow the governor to appoint their successor who then runs for the office with the strength of incumbency.

The State Bar may also assist in promulgating ethics standards for those seeking elected judgeships.

Finally, elections may open the pool of qualified candidates who may not have the political ties to garner an appointment.

Posted by: Scott Maravilla | Jan 6, 2016 7:37:40 PM

Where did Martin Redish come down on judicial independence in respect to a sitting judge who might be angling for a higher position in the judiciary? Would independence be affected if a district judge worried about how decisions will play for a potential race or appointment for the state supreme court?

As to the latter, consider a remark made by Learned Hand that his Masses opinion would negatively affect his elevation to the court of appeals. Seems a judge might still think about this, especially given many executives these days are more ideological in their judicial appointments. If true, perhaps it was not, the same principle would logically apply as to elections.

Posted by: Joe | Jan 4, 2016 5:36:34 PM

Martin Redish argued a few years ago--and I agree--that the threat to judicial independence comes not from initial selection, but from of retention. As long as there is some routine means for the public to remove a judge from the bench, independence is threatened. It doesn't matter how the judge got there in the first place.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jan 4, 2016 4:35:06 PM

Great post, Jordan. Really interesting stuff.

Posted by: Steve Lubet | Jan 4, 2016 2:51:53 PM

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