Ming Chin

Ron Robie

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Legal Newsline) -- Justice Ron Robie of California Court of Appeals pointed to a recent political ad as an example of the type of newfound pressure upon judges from special interest groups.

The ad, which pictures three judges dancing in the pocket of a businessman, says simply, "Where are my judges?" Robie told Legal Newsline this week.

"These are extremely negative kinds of advertising," Robie said.

Robie is a member of California's Commission on Impartial Courts, a wide-ranging committee broken down into four task forces, each looking for answers to what many believe is an epidemic of political pressure on judges.

"Courts throughout the country are facing unfair political attacks that threaten to weaken our democracy and jeopardize every American's right to equal access to justice," said California Supreme Court Justice Ming Chin, chair of the impartial courts commission.

Robie agrees with Chin that things have changed dramatically in recent years.

"The last several years have been extravagant campaigns against judges, sponsored by major interest groups - trial lawyers, labor, business groups - so it's the full spectrum," Robie said.

Influence on judges

In an interview Wednesday, Chin said that while California remains mostly free of the influences that have run rampant in some other states, the commission is determined to develop a broad range of strategies to protect the Golden State's courts.

"We don't want to take it for granted what we have now in California," Chin said.

Several other states have seen the rise of legislation that Chin believes would have a disastrous impact on the judicial branch of government.

"Jail for judges" legislation failed in South Dakota, Chin said, but the organizers of the legislation tried to also qualify it in California. Colorado faced term-limit legislation that would have removed three of the seven sitting state Supreme Courts and 40 percent of the court of appeal judges. Oregon has voted on similar legislation in recent years.

"We didn't feel that it would be prudent not to be prepared if (similar legislation was) brought to California," Chin said.

In the simplest terms, voters need to evaluate judges differently that the divisive, issue-driven campaigns familiar with other elected officials, Chin said.

He ticked off the standard for evaluating judges, including commitment to the rule of law, the ability to listen impartially to the face of a case and then the courage to apply the law to those facts, "regardless of his or her opinion on the issue," Chin said.

But when donors wave huge piles of money to bolster the candidacy of a judge solely on party affiliation or a judge's opinion on controversial issues, it will be increasingly difficult for judges to impartially apply the law.

"The huge sum of money now required in many states in judicial elections has changed things," Chin said. "We are more concerned about the influence of money. How are you going to maintain an impartial court when judges have to raise large sums of money to get elected?"

Judges must apply the law, Chin said, regardless of their personal opinion or worse, the political pressure applied by special interest groups.

"You can't raise your hand and test the political wind. You have to apply the law," Chin said.

Robie said the increase in campaign funds in political elections "opens the door to more issue-oriented judges. It makes judicial campaigning very expensive, and it makes it difficult for judges to talk about meaningful issues to voters."

Recommendations for California

The Commission on Impartial Courts will hold a public hearing Monday that will include testimony from former California governors, legal experts and heads of the state bar and judges associations.

The information gathered in the hearing along with work done by the four task forces - judicial section and retention, judicial campaign conduct, judicial campaign finance and public information and education - will be presented to the Judicial Council of California for review and implementation.

Christine Patton, regional director with the administration office of the court, said an interim report will be presented to the judicial council at its Aug. 15 meeting. A final report will be due in June 2009, Patton said.

In addition to public testimony, research and recommendations from each task force, the commission will partner with the Public Policy Institute for polling data, Patton said.

Recommendations are expected to include ways to educate voters about the importance of impartial judges.

"We think the public is sort of in the dark about the judicial branch," Robie said, "and we are looking for ways to help them understand on important things to evaluate when voting."

Chin said part of that education involves properly vetting judge candidates. Several judges on ballots in recent years have been deemed "not qualified" by the Judicial Nominee Evaluation. Patton said that any judge appointed by the governor has to be deemed qualified. But many on local ballots do not.

"We are thinking of changing that," Chin said, "and making it mandatory for all who run for judge seats."

Campaign finance issues present, perhaps, the largest challenge for the commission, Chin said.

"Campaign finance is such a difficult area; It's a struggle," he said.

Patton said the campaign finance task force is hoping to weed through potential solutions to recommend the most effective ways to limit the influence of campaign funding.

The forum will be held from 9:30 until noon in the auditorium of the Secretary of State Building, 1500 11th Street, Sacramento.

More News