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Judge H. Lee Sarokin Headshot

For Sale -- Going Fast: An Independent Judiciary -- Buy a Judge Today

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According to the New York Times the retention election of three Tennessee judges "has been preceded by an expensive and acrimonious campaign bolstered by organizations like Americans for Prosperity, which receives financial support from the billionaires Charles G. and David Koch and other conservative groups". Those supporting retention of the judges have been compelled to raise "more than $1 million" to combat the effort to defeat them. Could there be anything more unseemly or contrary to the purposes for which the judiciary was established?

I do not doubt that there are persons out there (and even corporations now) who contribute to judicial campaigns for the purpose of electing or retaining judges who are fair, competent and impartial and who will carry out the applicable laws and enforce the state and federal constitutions. Then there are the other 99 percent who wish to influence particular matters or judicial philosophy in general. Judges are not and were never intended to be elected representatives. I cringe at the constant contention that judges should be held "accountable". They are accountable to the laws and the Constitution. They should not be subject to the whim of those who find certain past rulings objectionable or seek to influence future ones by buying elections. Nothing could weaken the independence of the judiciary more than having judges removed or not re-elected because of prior decisions that they have made.

The whole concept of judicial independence is that judges should feel to rule as they deem correct without fear of retaliation. Nor should judges undertake the position with some feeling that they are indebted to those who have financed their election. Per the Times: "The Republican State Leadership Committee, a national group, plans to spend at least $5 million on judicial races this year." Why? Because they want to influence future judicial decisions.

Let's face it -- this movement is exclusively a conservative one. Conservatives own it. Judges are to be ousted for "liberal" rulings like upholding same-sex marriage, ordering new trials in death penalty cases or generally ruling in favor of persons charged with crimes -- stuff like upholding the Constitution. Judicial elections are degrading. Voters do not know whether or not the candidates are qualified. And finally money has further corrupted the process. I have said on prior occasions: Can you imagine a lawyer or a litigant walking up to a judge in the middle of a trial and handing the judge a check for his or her campaign? Would it make any difference if the check was delivered a week before? And isn't it even worse now that the big boys are coming in with even bigger checks?

We should end judicial elections entirely, but until we do, we must find a way to limit the corrupting influence of money in the election process and stop putting the judiciary up for sale.