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O'Connor on Indpendence

O'Connor on Indpendence

courtdaylogo.pngFormer Supreme Court Justice O'Connor has made headlines in the past week in the wake of the Citizens United campaign finance case. Her comments are notable both because the recent ruling overturned a decision in favor of imposing limits on corporate spending for which O'Connor was a key vote just a few years ago and because the decision has a direct impact on the major cause that she champions-- judicial independence.

Since her retirement, Justice O'Connor has remained an active and vocal member of the legal community, sharing her knowledge of and vision for the United States court system in TV and print media and with audiences across the country. As part of her commitment to judicial independence, Justice O'Connor has recently spearheaded a major push for states to eliminate judicial elections and implement less-political systems for selecting judges. Currently, 39 states elect at least some of their judges.

Justice O'Connor believes that judges should be selected "on the basis of merit, rather than their ability to win an election." She argues that when judges are reaching a decision in a case, they should not have to consider whether the decision will be "popular" enough to secure them re-election. Instead, they should be unfettered by their need for campaign donations and free to decide cases based solely on the facts of the case before them.

So, how, you might ask, does this relate to the Citizens United case? Now that corporations are allowed to use unlimited funds to advocate for or against the election of a candidate, they can have a significant impact on local judicial elections. A particular company or industry can devote resources to ensuring that they have a "partner" on the bench.

The counter-argument to eliminating judicial elections is that judicial elections are no less political than judicial appointments, which are simply political in more hidden ways. Further, some argue that judicial elections increase diversity on the bench and enhance democracy by making judges more accountable to the people who elected them.

It's certainly an interesting debate- weighing the desire to put power in the hands of the people with the equally important need to find judges who will truly be impartial.

What do you think? Are judicial elections a reasonable approach to selecting judges? And, do you think that the decision in Citizens United will significantly impact who is serving on the bench in the various states that still hold judicial elections?

Published: 2/05/2010

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