The Judiciary

Judiciary and merit selection

Former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor offered a more subtle reaction to the
court’s decision last week, during a symposium that was co-sponsored by the
Aspen Institute and the Sandra Day O’Connor Project on the State of the
Judiciary at Georgetown Law. Discussing the current state of the judiciary with
Wolf Blitzer, she joked, “Gosh, I step away for a couple of years and there’s
no telling what’s going to happen.”



O’Connor, a passionate advocate of judicial reform, has some cause for concern.
The decision in Citizens United
has the potential to open up elections for
state judges to derive further influence from special interests, unduly
influencing a branch of government meant to be impartial.



Through the Project, O’Connor channels her energies these days toward
maintaining a dialogue about the role of the judiciary. In her speech at the
symposium, the former justice focused on the role that states can play in
producing creative solutions to the problem of judicial elections. Employing
the reasoning of the Founding Fathers that states should be laboratories
through which the country can view the results of varying practices and
policies, O’Connor highlighted her home state of Arizona as a model of judicial
election reform.



In Arizona, merit selection is a way of choosing judges that uses nonpartisan commissions to
investigate and evaluate applicants for judgeships. Each commission is composed
of 10 public members and five attorney members, and is chaired by the chief
justice of the Arizona Supreme Court. After two years of judicial service,
those judges nominated by the commission and appointed by the governor are
evaluated by the voters in a retention election. While this system still has
its flaws, it an excellent alternative to other methods of judicial selection
that can reduce judges to political candidates rather than unbiased
interpreters of law. By using places like Arizona as a model for judicial
selection, O’Connor hopes that other states may follow suit to independently
improve their processes for selection.



Prominent guests at the event included: Laurence Tribe, a renowned
constitutional scholar; Chief Justice Durham of Utah’s Supreme Court; Tom
Phillips, the former chief justice of Texas’s Supreme Court; former FBI
Directors William Sessions and William Webster; and the director of the Sandra
Day O’Connor Project, Meryl Chertoff. The diversity of the audience testifies
to how critical it is to maintain an independent judiciary that the American
people can respect. Forums like the Sandra Day O’Connor Project are necessary
to facilitate a civil debate over judicial issues.



Meryl Chertoff spoke to the purpose of the event: “We want judges who are fair
and impartial, and the need to raise money for judicial races is antithetical
to that. Judges should have fidelity to law as their chief loyalty. They should
not have a debt of gratitude to contributors who may come before them as
attorneys or litigants.” Sandra Day O’Connor’s leadership has helped bring the
pressing issue of campaign finance reform to the forefront of judicial debates,
and the Sandra Day O’Connor Project will undoubtedly continue to play a crucial
role in the public discourse concerning judicial elections for a long time to
come.

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