Pick a judge. Any judge. Is she on the right? Is he on the left? As it stands, choosing which judicial candidate to vote for might as well be a game of three-card monte.
Nevada, like most other states, elects its judges—from the state Supreme Court down—by popular vote. But because judicial candidates are discouraged from revealing their political views or indicating how they might decide cases, voters often have little information on which to compare them. Many undoubtedly cast votes because they recognize a name from a campaign ad. Or, worse, they simply guess. And who can blame them? This year in the Las Vegas area, low-visibility judicial races account for nearly half the ballot.
On November 2, Nevadans will have a chance to change that. If enough voters say yes to Question 1, the state will adopt a merit-selection system that proponents say will produce more qualified judges. Candidates would be interviewed by a commission of experts that would approve a pool of worthy would-be judges. The governor would then make the final selections. Two years later, the candidates would be re-evaluated and the public would vote on whether or not to retain judges for another six years, with a 55 percent majority required to retain.
This slightly less democratic process has prominent backers who contend it will remove conflicts of interest—perceived or real. “Let me be clear about one thing,” writes former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, “a crisis of confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary is real and growing. Left unaddressed, the perception that justice is for sale will undermine the rule of law that courts are supposed to uphold.”
Danny Thompson of the AFL-CIO also supports amending the state constitution in the name of judicial neutrality. The labor leader warns against viewing the issue only in the abstract. Most voters don’t think they’ll have to go to court, he says. But “if you are up against a big company and lose, you think, ‘How much did the other side contribute to this judge’s campaign?’”
Replacing a system of “politicians in robes” (O’Connor’s words) and eliminating votes cast for the largest campaign signs are worthy goals. But it is the review of candidates that most appeals to Cam Ferenbach, president of the State Bar: “We’re trying to make your vote more effective. The data for the judicial evaluation will be collected by the Administrative Office of the Court, under the auspices of the Supreme Court.”
Nevada Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, herself an accomplished attorney, adds, “Justice should not be for sale, [and merit selection] creates mandatory accountability.”
Understandably, voters will still be reluctant to cede a portion of their clout at the polls. After all, the electorate here has a history of deciding big issues, including this one, with yes-or-no ballot votes. And Nevadans seem to like it that way. But attorney Albert G. Marquis has a real-world analogy for change-averse voters: “No employer would ever think of hiring someone based upon the number of billboards posted around town. Yet this is how we select people who make the most important decisions in our society—family fortunes, life and liberty.”