Public Dislikes Partisan Political Influence, Special Interest Money, in Judicial Selection

Harris Poll Finds Public Wants a Role, But Too Few Know the Role They Already Have

CHICAGO, Oct. 21, 2008—When Americans vote for president November 4, many also will be asked to vote for other offices, sometimes including judgeships.

A new nationwide Harris Poll, conducted with input from the _, shows that while a majority of members of the voting-age public think state court judges should be elected, they don’t want party labels or special interest money involved in the process. For federal court judgeships, respondents think citizen committees should review nominees’ backgrounds and qualifications.

“Americans recognize that justice is too important to be controlled by party politics, or by interest groups with big bankrolls,” said ABA President H. Thomas Wells Jr. of Birmingham, Ala.  “But many voting-age citizens are uncertain about how judges are chosen.  If we are going to continue to rely on voters to elect even some of our judges, we need to do more to inform voters about how the system works.”

When queried about federal court judges, more than two-thirds of the respondents, or 67 percent, said it’s a good idea to involve citizen committees in screening federal judicial nominees.   The ABA calls for using citizen advisory commissions to review the qualifications of potential federal court nominees and make recommendations for the president’s consideration.

When asked who should serve on such committees, 55 percent of poll respondents said “people like me,” 43 percent opted for people who are active in community groups, 32 percent approved other judges and 24 percent said lawyers should be represented.  Only 19 percent thought elected officials should play a role, and the same number said business owners or executives should participate.  Respondents could choose as many categories as they wished, but 20 percent were unsure who should participate.

The poll of 2,315 U.S. adults also showed 42 percent are unsure whether their own state judges are elected or appointed, but 55 percent think elections should be used.  In fact judges are elected for their first term in office in 24 states, and appointed judges face retention elections in 15 states.

“If voters want to play a role in selecting their judges, we need to find new ways to make sure they know what they are doing,” said Wells.

When asked about partisan versus non-partisan politics in state judicial elections, 43 percent of respondents say state court judges should be chosen without use of party labels, and only 12 percent think the elections should be partisan.  A hefty 79 percent agreed that because judges are expected to be impartial when they confront so many potential issues, they should not be allowed to accept money from special interests.

Among the 20 percent of respondents who want governors to appoint judges, citizen participation is heavily favored.  Nineteen percent of all respondents said governors should seek recommendations from citizen committees.

Full results for respondent answers to these and other questions on the survey are posted at http://www.abanet.org/media/harrispoll_judicialselection.pdf.

The poll was conducted between Sept. 15 and Sept. 22 by Harris Interactive®.

With more than 400,000 members, the _ is the largest voluntary professional membership organization in the world.  As the national voice of the legal profession, the ABA works to improve the administration of justice, promotes programs that assist lawyers and judges in their work, accredits law schools, provides continuing legal education, and works to build public understanding around the world of the importance of the rule of law.