Merit System in Washington Chopped Off

July 16, 2008

As you know, if you’ve been reading this a while, there was a bill last session of Washington’s legislature to adopt the merit system for the selection of judges to the Court of Appeals and the State Supreme Court. This is the system advocated diligently by Sandra Day O’Connor to eliminate the influence of deep pockets on judges’ decisions and to assure that the most qualified people are appointed to the bench.

The bill was sponsored by Jay Rodue, a Republican from the 5th District, Sherry Appleton, a Democrat from the 23rd District, Helen Sommers, from the 36th District. Here is a copy of the final form of the bill. The house report explained generally how it would work.

The bill made it to Frank Chopp’s Rules Committee, a death chamber for bills that do not advance the interests of the most powerful lobbies. He predictably killed the bill.

The people who sponsored the bill deserve accolades for wanting to improve our judicial system for the sake of the people here and not any special interest. The members of the House Rules Committee are listed here.

Our legislators need to know that we care about having the best court system that we can muster. I’ll write more when the legislature is in session.

Sandra Day O’Connor on How to Improve our Court System

February 1, 2008

Retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a Reagan-appointed U.S. Supreme Court Justice, is troubled by a court system that gives special interests great influence on the decisions of the courts. An independent court system is necessary to curb the influence of big money on the government. Dependence on campaign contributions for election creates an opportunity for moneyed interests to undermine the intended independence of judges. Justice O’Connor has spent much of her two years of retirement promoting the urgent need for re-establishing judicial independence in states where the level of campaign contributions plays a significant role in the selection of judges, states such as Washington.

Ironically Justice O’Connor became a trial judge in Arizona through an election, but happily saw Arizona replace that system with a merit system shortly before her appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. She commented in a November speech that the quality of the Arizona judicial system appreciably improved with the new selection system.

Her second wish was that prosecutors and defense lawyers should be similarly trained and paid, and that they should periodically trade places, going from one side to the other. This she said is how it works in England, something that I didn’t know.

HB 2150 Shelved in Frank Chopp’s Committee

January 28, 2008

HB 2150, the bill that would bring Washington its first meaningful judicial reform in 100 years, has been tabled by the House Rules Committee and is not scheduled for any action this session. Every attempt to reduce the influence of special interests in the selection of judges since the herculean efforts of the Walsh Commission in 1996 has been smothered by the special interests that would see their power reduced.

It is the task of the Rules Committee to schedule the bills that have made it out of committee for consideration on the floor of the house. Frank Chopp, the Chairman of the Rules Committee and the Speaker of the House, hails from the Fremont area of Seattle, which calls itself “the center of the universe.” It turns out that Fremont is also the nurturer of special interests and enemy of reform.

Why is Washington so Regressive?

January 23, 2008

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.

HB 2150; The Merit System for Washington at Last!

January 22, 2008

Apparently there are others who are appalled at the special interest money pouring into judicial elections, elections for judges who are supposed to be impartial. The primary purpose of the money that is lavished on judicial campaigns is to install judges who will not restrain the effects of the laws that lobbyists push through the state legislature.   Special interests, by their attack campaigns on sitting judges and financing the campaigns of their acolytes seek to implant favoritism in the courts. The special interests that lobby their bills through the state legislature seek to have those same bills, when they become laws, reviewed by judges who are their delegates.  Thus, these special interests are able to have laws passed by the legislature, then reviewed and interpreted by a court that is predisposed to support the interests behind the laws and which depends on the support of those special interests at the next judicial election.

This is a grievous distortion of the system the our forefathers envisioned.  Such influence by special interests was abhorrent to Alexander Hamilton who viewed an independent judicial branch as essential to  the protection of the rights of individuals from the “ill humors of designing men” and the minority party from the oppression of easily influenced popular sentiment.  Lack of an independent judiciary would threaten the constitution and imperil our form of government Hamilton wrote in Federalist Paper No. 77.

Judges are supposed to different than congressional representatives in that our system of government depends on an independent judicial branch, free — to the extent possible — from the influence of lobbyists, special interests and generally the sway of money. That was the founding father’s purpose in making federal judges appointees for life. In Washington a State Supreme Court judge serves a 6 year term, a tenure short enough for the judge’s decisions to be influenced by concern for re-election.

Apparently I am not the only person who sees this as a threat to the notion that our government, through its check and balances between the three branches, was intended to be fundamentally fair. Washington State representatives Rodne, Sullivan, Sommers and Appleton have sponsored a bill to address this corruption of our system of government: HB 2150.