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Steven Kurlander

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Incumbents Running Unopposed Should Not Be Rewarded With Full Terms

Posted: 04/23/2012 5:03 pm

Last week, something unusual happened in regard to a number of judicial races in Palm Beach County, Fla. -- some lawyers had the nerve of filing to run against four sitting judges in the upcoming 2012 elections.

This election year, there will be four contested races for PBC Circuit Court positions with two opponents taking on elderly judges who, if re-elected, would be forced to retire due to age before the expiration of their new terms.

Usually, these PBC judicial races are uncontested and voters don't have a choice about booting a judge out of office -- while they are supposed to be elected officials, they are often de facto lifers like appointed U.S. Supreme Court judges who serve until they decide to call it quits (or reach a mandatory retirement age of 70 in Florida). Running for re-election is too often just an exercise and a fait accompli for these "elected" jurists.

The fact that these judges rarely face opposition is an example of a broken political system that allows politicians to win initial elections and then make a career in judicial politics without allowing voters to later "judge" them on their job performance. The "oddity" of contested Palm Beach judicial races is just another example of how deep-rooted the convention of uncontested races is in our political system.

Up to now, the focus has been on imposing term limits to fix a political system that allows an office holder to stay in power for many terms -- but the real problem is that many politicians (and judges) at all levels of government rarely face serious, if any, opponents in getting re-elected.

If there were contested general elections in every political race, there would be no talk of mandatory term limits because the voters would have a greater ability to vote out of office those who did not deserve to be there.

While term limits force incumbents out of office after a certain amount of terms, it is often the case that career politicians play political musical chairs and just find another office to run for (sometimes uncontested), nevertheless perpetuating their careers in government and safeguarding a ruling political elite. While designed to facilitate the ability of new candidates to run for office, term limits have proven "limited" in this respect.

There are a number of reasons for uncontested races in American politics: there's the high cost and the brutality of winning and staying in office that only a few wealthy, thick-skinned individuals can afford to undertake; many political subdivisions are designed by gerrymandering, which is a process that creates safe districts for incumbents; at all levels of government, a political class perpetuates itself where scions and associates of politicians gain easier access to office and power; often, general elections consist of only one sole candidate running in a general election because of the clear dominance of registered voters of one party in a city or state; sometimes, it's just a matter that a politician is really good at serving his or her constituents and is hard to beat because his or her experience, seniority, and political influence.

Politicians running unopposed should not be rewarded with full terms. Instead of establishing less than meaningful term limits, the answer should be to make public officials elected without a contest in a general election run every year until they face a contested general race.

While some states already subject their public officials to recall elections, making an unchallenged incumbent politician face re-election every year would at least make him or her subject to answer more often for their conduct in office and give them less of a guarantee of a job for life.

Term limits are not enough.

While Tea Party movement has changed the political landscape to some degree by running candidates to challenge entrenched political incumbents, much more needs to be done, like making uncontested incumbents run every year for office to guarantee that de facto political lifers like most of the Palm Beach judges not facing opposition in November won't continue to dominate the American political landscape.

Steven Kurlander's columns appear every Thursday in the Sun Sentinel and Friday in Florida Voices. Follow him via his Kurly's Kommentary blog. Email him at kurly@stevenkurlander.com.

 

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