Why judicial elections are scary (hint: see the 2010 Court of Appeals race)

ruffinI usually confine my comments to health care because it’s the topic I spend my time studying.

But I do have a bit of experience with judicial races as I worked with the campaigns of Judges Linda McGee and Alan Thornburg on the North Carolina Court of Appeals. After the campaign I wrote an editorial for the News & Observer (that I think you now have to pay to see) entitled “Judicial Elections Don’t Work”. During that campaign various interest groups tried to convince judges to take pledges and make ironclad promises.

There is intense pressure to engage in the type of electioneering behavior that undermines the independence of the judiciary.

Howard Manning was likely not elected in 2004, for example, because he asked that the Republican Party not endorse him in the non-partisan Supreme Court race. Justice Paul Newby had no such reservations, and his name was sent out to thousands of Republicans across the state. Taking the high road rarely works in judicial elections. But the high road is the one we want our judges traveling.

That brings me to the 2010 race where the right-wing candidate Steven Walker is running for the Court of Appeals. How qualified is Walker to join that august body of jurists? He graduated from Campbell law in 2005 and has clerked on the Supreme Court for four years. Clerking, for those who don’t know, is working as a research assistant for a judge or justice. You read trial transcripts and briefs and work with your judge or justice to assemble an opinion.

Keep in mind that Walker is running against Judge Rick Elmore, a deeply experienced Republican judge. The problem, in Walker’s worldview, is that Elmore is just not Republican enough. There are actually several experienced candidates in the race. But with low turnout motivated tea partiers could put an ideologue and neophyte on the bench.

Walker’s website is filled with coded language to let you know that he is a proud member of the far right fringe. He says:

A vote for Steven will be a vote in returning the judiciary to its proper place–not an oligarchy to rule over the people, but a safeguard of the people’s rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Here is the first sentence under “Interests”:

Steven has been interested in firearms for a large portion of his life.

I see.

I suppose something good could come from electing Walker Texas Ranger to the Court of Appeals — maybe it would motivate the General Assembly to scrap our silly method of picking judges.

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