The topic of what to do with problematic judges has been a national discussion for the past few weeks, so I thought this might be a good moment to talk about how we can avoid having problematic people get on the bench in the first place.
Most judges ascend to the bench in one of two ways: they either get directly elected by voters, or state legislatures/governors appoint them. This article is about what we, as voters, can do to be as informed as possible before we cast our votes for judicial candidates.
Many judicial candidates are elected in non-partisan elections, so you’ll rarely have a (D) or an (R) next to someone’s name to give you a clue. After all, judges are elected to be impartial and so it takes a bit more work to figure out where they stand on matters that are important to you, and if they are someone you want to see on the bench.
And finally, research into voting behavior demonstrates that some voters who cast their ballot simply don’t vote for every race, and judicial elections are left blank far too often. Which means even a little bit of effort you put into looking into judicial candidates takes on even greater significance!
Where to find clues
Start by checking any voter guides that your state or local/county bar association publishes about the election. They are a wealth of information.
The League of Women Voters in your state is also another good nonpartisan organization to check with, as they publish voter guides that cover judicial elections.
If the candidate is running ads on TV, in the newspapers, or on social media, look to see who funded the ads. That might be a clue as to their ideological leanings. Also look at who is funding any negative ads against judicial candidates.
Look at who has endorsed the candidates. This is often noted in your local newspaper or in the voters guide. You can always contact the person or organization that has endorsed someone and ask them for their reasoning.
You might be sent judicial biographies as part of your voter information guide prior to an election, but if not, you can generally get that through your state’s Secretary of State or elections office.
You likely won’t see judicial candidates debate each other, but they may participate in a candidate forum, where they are asked questions about their views on justice or how they’ve resolved ethical dilemmas.
Look to see if special interest groups are funding the campaign. Type the name of the candidate you’re researching into OpenSecrets. For more on this, ready Money In Judicial Elections by the Brennan Center.
One caveat — Watch out for deceptive campaign material painting a judge (or attorney hoping to become a judge) by using just one or two decisions/cases that they’ve been involved in. They are involved in hundreds of cases a year.
Thank you for paying attention to these important races!
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