Editorial: A Blow to the Courts

Posted on nytimes.com:

"Like the rest of this year’s political campaign, state judicial elections were awash in cash and blaring attack ads. The spectacle raises legitimate doubts about the impartiality of even the most respected judges.

"Among last Tuesday’s alarming results was the defeat of three Iowa Supreme Court justices who had joined in last year’s unanimous ruling to honor the freedom to marry there. The three sought to remain above the fray. They did not raise money and made few public appearances. A group supporting them, Fair Courts for Us, reported spending about $400,000.

"Their supporters were far outgunned by the National Organization for Marriage, the American Family Association and other groups that spent at least $1 million urging voters to oust them. The 2009 ruling will stand. But the judges’ defeat is sure to make other elected judges shy from rendering controversial rulings, especially before elections.

"What made the Iowa outcome even more demoralizing is that this was a retention election — one that asks for a simple yes-or-no vote on whether to grant judges another term. These elections are supposed to spare sitting judges from competing in multicandidate contests, making the process as apolitical as possible. It didn’t work that way this year in Iowa, or in many other states.

... "This year’s campaign is one more reminder of why the 39 states that hold judicial elections should scrap them in favor of merit screening and appointment of judges for a long fixed term. For that to happen, state legislatures and voters would need to revise state constitutions, typically a lengthy and difficult process. At a minimum, these states must put in place strict rules barring judges from ruling in cases involving major financial supporters."

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