Friday, May 16, 2008

Freeing judges from politics

When she was appointed to the Idaho Supreme Court in 1992, Linda Copple Trout preferred to devote her years on the bench to public service, refereeing the complexities of laws that guide lives and reinforce the workings of government.

What she disliked was running for office every four years like other elected officials—raising campaign funds, including from lawyers who'd appear in her court, and campaigning to win votes.

Trout is retiring as Idaho's chief justice and leaving Idahoans sound advice. Politics, she says, must be taken out of the judiciary.

It's a worthy parting thought. Since 1940, when Missouri voters revolted against corrupt judges and developed the "Missouri Plan" for appointing jurists, 33 other states have abandoned elections for judges and use a variety of methods for appointing from lists provided by nonpartisan selection panels. No state has gone back to the old ways.

Unlike other elected politicians who curry favor with voters with colorful claims and promises, judges by the nature of their work are not known by average voters. To require them to campaign for election inevitably creates conflicts—accepting campaign donations, for example, from interests that might expect favors in court.

Removing Idaho's appeals and supreme courts from politics and appointing judges that would stand for retention every four years on the strength of published records rather than campaign rhetoric would be far more credible insurance for fairness in court than the present system.

Idaho high court jurists then would not need worry whether a single ruling in the public interest would be politically fatal at election time.

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