Electing Judges in Partisan Elections Is a Bad Idea

This year Tennesseans will decide whether state judges are to be appointed by the governor. The current system is expiring, and when you vote in November, you'll be asked to endorse a similar system.

Meanwhile, some politicians are pushing the courts to invalidate the current system and the proposed replacement, insisting that Tennessee's Constitution requires direct election of judges.

Electing judges is a bad idea, particularly if judicial elections are partisan. There is little that more directly undercuts the notion of impartiality than partisanship. Judges are supposed to be fair, but partisan elections guarantee they will be vulnerable to influence and corruption. Simply requiring judges to align with a political party undermines their integrity.

You would expect that a lot of thought has gone into devising our system of judicial selection, but the arbitrary nature of Tennessee's system, which has been tweaked repeatedly in recent decades, proves otherwise. A judicial selection committee had been charged with nominating judges from which legislators could pick, but legislators allowed that committee to dissolve without replacement.

If voters re-establish retention elections in November, life will go on much like it has, but with a slightly more powerful governor. If voters fail to support the amendment, our judicial system will be left in disrepair, awaiting presumably better solutions. That our system is in such a precarious state speaks to the weakness of our government.

Where are the statesmen who operate from principle and who solve such problems with wisdom and sound judgment? They seem in short supply, regardless of level of government or geographic region. We are just fools making arbitrary rules.

Here is a rule that is anything but arbitrary: Judicial elections should be nonpartisan. There is no good reason to bring partisanship into the courts.

There is also no good reason to elect judges. Doing so invites corruption and incompetence. The inherent checks on the power of legislators and even executives limit the harm they can do, but judges need a more preemptive balance on their power. Particularly at the level of appellate courts, candidates should all be professionals held in high regard by peers.

Tennessee's system provided reasonable assurance of that outcome, and voters will do no harm by approving the amendment on the ballot, but we could do better. Retention elections have never served a useful purpose. The only judge removed from office in a retention election was Penny White, and she was defeated largely as a show of partisan power tinged with sexism.

Keeping a system in place that has been abused but never been used as intended seems pointless, though its infrequency of use could also be evidence of a sound judiciary.

With weaker checks on gubernatorial power, we may see more dubious judicial appointments, and if that really is a danger, Bill Haslam will likely be the first governor to abuse the process. With no process at all, the risk of abuse is even greater.

With Haslam in power, abuse is a given.

So we need credible challenges to Haslam from within and outside his party. Republicans appear to be tiring of doing nothing but obstruction, and there is no way Americans will tolerate that any longer. Tea Party fools will stick with their strategy until they get dumped from office, and that is their destiny.

This year's elections will indicate whether Tennessee is ready for the future or stuck in the past. In addition to the judicial vote, we will see whether Knox County voters are willing to replace Joy McCroskey as Criminal Court Clerk. Though her poor health is something of an excuse, the mistakes her office has made and her denial of the scale and severity of the problem suggests we will be better off giving Mike Hammond control of that office.

Tennessee needs some big changes, and it would be a good sign if this year's elections generate some surprises.