It would be easy for a question about how judges are chosen to get overlooked amid the excitement of a presidential election, but a group of former judges and others are trying to make sure that doesn't happen in Johnson County.
On the Nov. 4 ballot, Johnson County voters will be asked to switch from the current merit-based selection of district judges to having those judges elected by partisan ballot. In Kansas, about half of the district judges are elected and the other half are appointed.
The merit-based appointment system requires a local nominating commission to screen nominees for an open judgeship and forward three names to the governor, who makes the appointment. After their appointment, judges face a retention vote every four years.
The proponents of the Johnson County change say partisan elections would make judges more accountable to the public. That may be true, but while judges are public servants, their job actually requires their first loyalty to be to the law, not to the constituents they serve. In fact, making judges more directly accountable to the voting public creates at least the appearance that a judge's decisions, which should be focused purely on the law, might be influenced by those who financially supported the judge's campaign.
In fact, that may be exactly what the proponents of the Johnson County measure have in mind. The effort to change the judge selection is being led by a group called Judicial Review of Johnson County. A judge retention questionnaire the group sent to Johnson County judges in 2006 asked eight questions: two about the definition of marriage in Kansas, two about taxes and one each about the state death penalty, the rights of the unborn, assisted suicide and the definition of pornography.
The topics imply a certain social agenda, but even if this group has no particular agenda, there is no doubt that switching to a partisan election system makes judges more vulnerable to the political influence of this or any other group. Even if judges are sworn to uphold the law, elections on some level also make those judges beholden to those who support their campaigns financially, which would be no small issue in Johnson County's expensive media market.
There have been examples across the country of large corporations with cases pending before a court committing thousands, if not millions, of dollars to trying to influence the outcome of a judicial election. Last year, a judge in Wichita came under scrutiny because of allegations that his actions in court might have been biased toward a law firm that had contributed to his campaign.
Those who favor the Johnson County change say their long-term mission is to "hold all judges throughout the state of Kansas accountable as elected officials." Judges already are held accountable through a retention system. That system also was beefed up in 2006 by the creation of the Commission on Judicial Performance, whose charge is to further that judicial accountability by collecting and distributing additional information about judges to Kansas voters.
There is simply no way to justify the view that partisan election would somehow make the selection of judges less political. Rather than moving to more partisan elections, the state should be passing legislation to make appointment and retention the standard system for all state courts.