How to Not Pick Judges

I know I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again: Judges should not be elected. I know that’s counterintuitive for those of us who don’t personally appoint judges and I know it’s undemocratic, but, yeesh, there are some awful people who run for judicial office.

There’s a brand-new example of this outlined in a lawsuit filed last week in Los Angeles. It seems, if the stuff in the complaint is true, that there’s a guy formerly known as Michael Richard Cummins running for a Superior Court seat who changed his name two years ago.

His legal name is now Judge Mike Cummins. His ballot designation is “retired.”

The lawsuit claims Cummins was not allowed to use “judge” as a ballot designation so he came up with a creative workaround.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, this is an imaginative solution to the problem of getting elected, and we do want smart, flexible judges. On the other hand, we probably also ought to have judges with a healthy respect for honesty.

I don’t know how the plaintiff, David L. Gould, who is described only as a “registered voter,” found out about this. My first guess was that he is related to the woman running against “Judge.” Maybe he’s her boyfriend or just maybe he’s a political consultant. I guess it doesn’t matter, because most of the time a creative ruse like this would go unnoticed — and that’s a big part of the problem.

Hardly anyone pays attention to most judicial elections. I’ve been guilty of checking ballot boxes at random. You probably have, too. So pretty much anyone with an appealing name or designation can get elected. If your law practice is failing, you might as well run for judge and get a guaranteed check.

But I’m not recommending paying more attention. It could be worse. Imagine an alternate reality in which we all intently watched Donald Trump run for Supreme Court Chief Justice instead of president, and he managed to win.

Has your head exploded?

If you’re still intact, let this scenario percolate in your brain. Imagine writing briefs — really, really brief briefs — for Justice Trump. Imagine oral argument. You may have to employ a grade-school bully to coach you on appropriate rhetoric.

Would it be malpractice not to stay at a Trump hotel while you’re in town for argument? Should you try to get dirt on Justice Ginsburg?

So, you see, electing judges is a terrible idea.

Another terrible idea is appointing judges. ProPublica, for example, last week reported on new proposed legislation in one state that came after an investigation “exposed how politics and flawed oversight provided fertile ground for incompetence and corruption on the bench.”

That state — South Carolina — may have been an extreme example. The bar, so to speak, for a judicial appointment was pretty low there. But I bet you can come up with other bad examples. Are judges who are appointed by people who are elected any better than elected judges?

Often they are, but what if, say, a rogue president decided to pack the bench with people he liked no matter how unqualified they were? That would be awful.

Oh, wait …

It’s kind of a miracle we have so many good judges. How did this happen?

I don’t know, but I have a suggestion for my fellow muckraking journalists and reformers out there: You’re investigating the wrong thing. You need to investigate good judges, not the bad ones, so we can figure out how they got there. Then maybe the process can be replicated.

How do you decide who is a good judge? That’s easy — they’re someone we agree with.

Get to work. do-gooders. In the meantime, I’m thinking about changing my first name to Senator. It has a nice ring to it.

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