Los Angeles Times: Should a candidate for judge be allowed to tell voters which political party he or she belongs to? Do we want would-be judges to promise voters, for example, that they will invoke the death penalty every chance they get? The U.S. Supreme Court soon will decide what many legal experts see as a knotty case with big implications for ensuring fair trials.
The specific dispute centers on the constitutionality of Minnesota's "announce" rule, a part of that state's canons of judicial ethics that bars a candidate from commenting on cases, issues or controversies that could come before him or her as a judge. This rule is intended to prevent a would-be judge from committing to an ideological position before even hearing any testimony.
Gregory Wersal, a lawyer who lost a 1998 bid for the Minnesota Supreme Court, brought this challenge. Wersal wanted voters to know he would decide cases based on a literal interpretation of the state constitution and sought the endorsement of the Minnesota Republican Party.
The Minnesota state bar's ethics rules prohibit party endorsements and statements by a candidate as to how he would decide on specific issues. Minnesota's rule is similar to ethical canons that limit the behavior of judicial candidates in the 30 states, including California, where voters elect all or most of their judges. Candidates can generally tout their qualifications for the bench and past accomplishments, but little else.
When the justices heard arguments in the Minnesota case in March, several seemed inclined to loosen the muzzle these canons placed on judges. But if they do, a cornerstone of the court system will be compromised and campaigns for the bench could well turn into ugly contests over which candidate promises to throw the most criminals in the slammer. Judges have a unique role in our democracy. We don't elect them to be advocates for an issue or position; that's the role of officials such as legislators, governors and the president. Rather, we select judges specifically not to be beholden to any particular viewpoint.
Certainly many judges do their work harboring their own biases, just like the rest of us. But we expect judges to set aside those views and consider only the facts and the law in each case.
When a judge announces on the campaign trail that he will throw the book at every accused rapist or drunk driver, what is the likelihood that people accused of those crimes in his courtroom will get a fair trial?
It is jarring to think of an election campaign in which the candidates cannot tell voters much about what they think. The only thing worse would be judicial candidates who told us how they would rule on every issue. That would be more than jarring -- that would be a frightening blow to judicial independence.