Electing state judges is a “profoundly unwise” practice that’s akin to letting football fans select a game’s referees, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens said Saturday.
“Persons who undertake the task of administering justice impartially should not be required - indeed, they should not be permitted - to finance campaigns or to curry the favor of voters by making predictions or promises about how they will decide cases before they have heard any evidence or argument,” Stevens told lawyers at an American Bar Association convention in Orlando, Fla.
“A campaign promise to be ‘tough on crime’ or to ‘enforce the death penalty’ is evidence of bias that should disqualify a candidate from sitting in criminal cases,” said Stevens, a member of the nation’s highest court since 1975.
“Moreover, making the retention of judicial office dependent on the popularity of the judge inevitably affects the decisional process in high visibility cases, no matter how competent and how conscientious the judge may be,” Stevens said.
Most states provide for the popular election of judges, or require judges to occasionally be subjected to retention elections. Like all federal judges, Stevens was appointed for life.
Stevens urged the ABA and state bar associations to work toward ending judicial elections.
He quoted a Florida judge as saying that it “was never contemplated that the individual who has to protect our individual rights would have to consider what decision would produce the most votes.”
If states continue to require judicial elections, Stevens said, “an impartial appraisal of the integrity, the temperament and the competence of the prospective judge is an essential guide to informed voting.”
Although he consistently has voted to uphold the death penalty’s constitutionality, Stevens said he is troubled by capital punishment.
“The recent development of reliable scientific evidentiary methods has made it possible to establish conclusively that a disturbing number of persons who had been sentenced to death were actually innocent,” he said.