Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Running for Judge.

Tonight I had the opportunity to participate in the perennial, time honored tradition of being part of the host committee for one of our local Judge's re-election campaigns.  It was a very well attended affair by the usual who's who of the local bar.  The Judge was in rare form, meeting and greeting as the occasion requires, quite a different persona from the one assumed on the bench as he metes out justice to the hopeful litigants.

I'm afraid I've been a bit out of the formal political loop recently, what with the practice providing much needed assistance to many parties desperate for access to justice, so I was surprised to hear that the Judge had  competition in this election.

This competitor is well known to the bar, as well.  She is a perennial runner, almost as certain to run as an election is to be held.  I suspect she has long since given up hope of winning, or at least I hope she has.  Rather, she constantly runs because it is the most inexpensive method of marketing that she has ever discovered. 

To some potential clients, she hopes to many, running for Judge gives them the imprimatur of success, of authority, of position.  Actually, running for Judge means you could scrape a few dollars together to get your name on the ballot and a few dollars more to print up signs.  But compared to the cost of bill boards, election signs are a steal, and you aren't tarnished with the impression of chasing ambulances.

I've met many a client who thought, at first, that this candidate had credentials and clout just because of her judicial attempts.  Through personal contact, not with the candidate, but as the practitioner, they were soon disabused of their notions.

The problem is not so much that the sitting, qualified, decent judges have to defend their seat.  Campaigning is a stressor for them that they would certainly rather not endure but it is a part of their political reality and I would sorely disapprove of a system that didn't require a judge to be accountable to the electorate.  Rather, it is the terrifying notion of what would happen if this candidate won.  Without purpose, without plan, without competence, without scruples, the bench in that post would first become a laughing stock followed quickly by a disaster of jurisprudence not seen since a Fulton County courtroom got a similar dose back in the 90's and the Judicial Qualifications Commission had to intervene to save the public.

But there is little way to warn the public, who sees this candidate's name time after time, running against whomever, whenever.  The public doesn't know the dangers that lurk in this candidate's election.  The public doesn't know the loss that would be suffered by this particular Judge's defeat. 

Judge's are central to keeping the peace in our communities.  Judges provide a valve to the steam of anger and resentment that is borne from perceived injustice.  A good judge won't make all people happy.  Never.  But a good judge will leave a litigant feeling heard and knowing that they had their day in court.  A judge is a perfect leveler.  Get a good judge, get a fair result.  Get a bad judge and there can be no peace, only another layer of suffering.

So what if the candidate wins?  The judicial system will suffer, sure enough.  But the public will suffer so much more. 

The moral to this story is that, come election time, investigate your judges.  Find out what the bar has to say about the judge.  See what the community says through the press and through the internet, though every judge has at least a couple of never happy litigants to defile them.  Investigate the opposition.  If the judge's campaign is doing its job, there should be some negative information about the opposition.  Look into it.  Determine as best you can whether it is valid.

Think about your values and priorities.  Every so often the business community will get outraged at a judge enforcing the law that winds up resulting in a fair verdict for an injured party.  The business community finds someone of reasonable stature to run against the offending judge.  But those issues are usually laid bare in the political pieces put out by each campaign.  How do you feel about businesses trying to gain an advantage by putting their own judge in office?

The issues that motivates the candidates present themselves, if you look for them. 

Our judges impact our lives in significant enough ways that it merits us to know as much about them as we can, so that our judgments about them are as sound as we want their judgments about us to be.

Michael Manely

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