In terms of assuring that we have top quality impartial judges Washington is perhaps the most regressive state of the union. Until 2006 every state, except Washington and three others, had adopted legislation putting limits on judicial campaign contributions. That year Washington passed a law limiting judicial campaign contributions. Generally speaking it limited contributions to the same levels as state legislature campaign contributions, $1400 per contributor. As campaign finance reform goes this is a light measure, which proved of limited value in the 2006 judicial election, where spending broke all records.
Twelve years ago it was officially determined that reform is badly needed. In 1996 the Walsh Commission, a 24 member panel, studied problems with Washington’s judicial system and came up with a number of recommendations. First, it recommended a type of merit system for the appointment of judges, the sort of procedure that is in place in most other states. This involved a commission to select the candidates for appointment by the governor when a position opened between elections, retention elections in which judges were not opposed but voted to stay or go, and among other thing a voters pamphlet to inform voters of the choices when voting for a judge. This would certainly not have put Washington in the forefront of states seeking to enhance the stature of the judicial branch and improve judicial elections, but it would have at least brought Washington into the main stream.
The proposed legislation that grew out of this was not even voted on, languishing in committee. Believe it or not the state legislature would not even vote to authorize the voters’ pamphlet. The Washington State Supreme Court, however, printed one itself.
The special interests in Washington are so powerful that we cannot pass legislation intended to limit their influence on judges. As Sandra Day O’Connor said if we don’t reform this system we don’t deserve imparitial judges.