For the week of February 10, 1999  thru February 16, 1999  

Taking judge out of politics

Commentary by PAT MURPHY

Most Idaho judges spend their days in court overseeing mostly dull-as-dishwater cases, slogging through hip-deep legalisms that put insomniacs into deep sleep.

Except for lawyers and jurors, most Idahoans can’t name judges or cite any of their case rulings.

But count on this: Supreme Court Chief Justice Linda Copple Trout’s suggestion that appointive, rather than elective, judges would improve Idaho courts is bound to erupt in an uproar.

Spinmeisters of oddball logic will whip up a frenzy with dark distortions about citizen rights. Thereafter, some voters willingly and mindlessly will march on the statehouse protesting an imagined conspiracy to impose the yoke of a police state on Idahoans.

Such nonsense. Most local, state and national government authorities are appointive, not elective-- police chiefs, city managers, the directors of the FBI, Secret Service and CIA; the chiefs of staff of the armed forces, and all federal judges and members of the U.S. Supreme Court.

And most judges now must adhere to volumes of case law that narrows their discretionary powers.

Moreover, the trend nationally is toward appointment of judges, with voter approval, resulting in more intelligent application of law.

Justice Trout’s premise is sound – taking judges out of politics and the demeaning rigors of raising campaign cash from lawyers who thereafter may expect tit-for-tat treatment in court.

What Justice Trout also should’ve said is that elections of judges are more political beauty contests than picks of legal competence.

In the 1950s, while covering criminal courts in Florida, I was aghast watching Dade County Criminal Judge Ben Willard, a politician-judge, dispensing a brand of "justice."

To a black man standing before him, Judge Willard would crudely ask in his best redneck-ese: "You want me to call you ‘Mr. Smith’ and give you 10 years, or just call you ‘boy’ and let you go free?"

That sort of conduct today would get a judge thrown off the bench and probably disbarred from the practice of law.

In the early 1970s, ultra-conservative Arizona made the transition to appointive judges, a change engineered by a statewide coalition of civic, business and political figures who’d become exasperated with abuses of politician-judges.

Opponents were shrill and tough: they wanted to preserve the good ol’ boy system of strings on judges through campaign donations, crying that democracy was imperiled.

Voters ultimately grasped the wisdom of the new mechanism – a bi-partisan panel of lawyers and non-lawyers screening judge candidates, sending a finalists list to the governor, from which appointees were picked.

Every four years, sitting judges stand for retention with a yes or no vote by the public. Any vacancy created by a "no" vote is filled with a new appointee. No campaigning, no fund-raising. No strings on judges.

Despite goofy antics elsewhere in its public affairs, Arizona’s courts now are rated among the nation’s best.

Justice Trout’s vision for Idaho courts may not be shared immediately by all Idahoans. But in time, she’ll be proven well ahead in her thinking.

Murphy is the retired publisher of the Arizona Republic and a former radio commentator.


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