10 Questions Judicial Candidates Should be able to Answer By Eric van der Vort
One of the many unusual features of U.S. politics is the election of judges. Federal judges are appointed because the Framers wanted them independent of popular and political pressures, so they could better interpret law. The states gradually implemented a different approach. 87 percent of all state court judges face elections with 39 states having some electoral component in selecting judges.
How states approach this varies significantly. Elections may be partisan or nonpartisan. Some are competitive while others are retention elections where voters choose whether or not to keep a particular judge in office. Whatever form they take, it is an unavoidable fact that most voters have to decide whether someone should become a judge or not.
This can be a challenging question. Elections are often low information events where people rely on informational shortcuts like partisanship or. Judicial elections are particularly low information because the candidates often do not campaign in the way we are accustomed to and the job of a judge (to rule on cases of law) is harder to parse than that of a lawmaker.
What makes a good judge? How do we choose between two people who both appear to have law degrees and be community members in good standing? Or two people whom we have never heard of before and will likely not hear of again until the next election? These are hard questions for even political sophisticates to answer.
One way to help sort out the differences is to ask the candidates questions. In states like New York, potential judges will appear at fairs and events like any other candidate. Some lists of questions exist, but they can be quite long.
Here is a manageable list of questions, which focus on knowledge, character and effectiveness. I have complied a shorter list of ten questions that can help provide voters with a better sense of candidates' qualifications, approach, ethics, and sense of justice:
1. What qualifies you to be a judge beyond a law degree? Why should I vote for you?
2. Can you explain your judicial philosophy in plain English?
3. Do you consider yourself a politician?
4. How will you balance being an independent judge and an elected official?
5. How will you handle conflicts of interest on the bench?
6. What are the biggest changes you think we need to make to our justice system?
7. What reforms do you support to increase access to justice for all? Will you fight for them?
8. How do you define injustice?
9. How will you deal with injustice when you confront it in your courtroom?
10. How will you work to ensure equality for people of all backgrounds in your courtroom?
Eric van der Vort is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at The Maxwell School of Syracuse University.