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Elections for the judiciary in USA – a barrier to penal reform?

Penelope Gibbs
14 Jun 2014

In many states of the USA, judges are elected by the people.  And in some  of those states, Judges are allowed to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections campaigns.  This morning I was shown some of the TV adverts prospective judges put out.  Some were scary, particularly for penal reformers – negative advertising accusing rivals of letting criminals loose, and worse.  Judges are not allowed to ally themselves with political parties, but they can pitch to attract the popular vote and/or accept funds from those who they may have to adjudicate over.  This fight for votes, by those who should be independent, is bad for justice and not particularly democratic, since very few turn out to vote.  Justice at Stake campaigns for any judicial elections to be clean, open and low budget, and is supportive of states which do not elect their judges.  Bert Brandenburg, its director, does however agree that there are some advantages to having judges elected eg that it exposes them to public meetings, and  gets them to engage with community concerns. However, Bert feels that this positive engagement could be incorporated in judicial practice without necessarily having elections.  As well as CPD, he suggests judges should also do compulsory public education.  What a great idea.