This could also be titled, “How to Vote for Local Judges,” because many people report being baffled when it comes to that part of the ballot. Taking our civic act of voting means we consider our choices before and after elections.
Though we won’t face a ballot for some time, the winners of November’s election for local judges impact the 25 million cases that go through state and local courts annually. Our judicial elections have the potential to affect all forms of justice in the county: the outcome of domestic relations cases, drug and DWI offenses, traffic or zoning infraction and juvenile cases.
One in nine Americans will be involved in the court system in their lifetime. Judges establish the procedures in those courtrooms. Judges interpret code and ordinances, make rulings based on state law and “local mores” (practices). Some work with local political leaders to establish policies. For instance, judges can advocate for good policy, such drug courts that prioritize treatment over incarceration. In short, judges are the face of the law for most of us. Justice for all is at stake in our local courts.
This past election in Montgomery County, we voted for two judges and had three candidates. Knowing that most federal judges are appointed, it feels a bit awkward to elect judges, as if we are politicizing a position that we trust to be objective. It helps to have some context.
Indiana is one of 21 states that holds at least some non-partisan elections for judges. Because some of our judicial candidates run in affiliation with parties, it complicates the decision for some voters. It may feel safer to appoint them, but the blend of elected and appointed judges began 150 years ago as a safeguard. It is a way to avoid the partisanship and corruption that can occur when governors and presidents, who are equally political, appoint all judges. Electing local judges grants citizens a say in the conditions of their municipalities.
For this reason, it matters who we elect. In Indiana, judges serve a six-year term, and local court judges are not required to have a law degree in some municipalities. All judges must complete initial and continuing education and if they hand down a judgement in a misdemeanor, defendants can appeal, requesting an attorney-judge. The only requirement in some towns and cities is that the judge be a resident. In short, almost anyone can run. The decision to elect local judges means voters need to know what to look for in a candidate.
Most of us want attorneys to run. They know the laws that they will be interpreting. Beyond that qualification, we should evaluate candidates on the kinds of conditions we want to foster locally. Perhaps this is where political affiliation can help us estimate how a judge will handle zoning ordinances, but how does it help us with landlord-tenant disputes, approaches to substance abuse, and cases involving discrimination? This is where to learn more about the candidates’ affiliations: who do they volunteer with, what boards have they served on, where are they members. If we want to build a diverse community, we want to elect judges who look like the community we want, in action and in membership.
Last June, Mayor Todd Barton wrote in his statement on Racial Equality and Police Reform that the Crawfordsville Police Department would “take steps to ensure officers of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds” would be more visible and “reflective of our community.” Our community is changing, becoming more reflective of our nation’s diversity, which we welcome. As we welcome diversity into our neighborhoods, we want to have the same reflective diversity in all of our municipal systems. A study published in Washington University Law Review (2009) found that most judges work hard at being objective in the courtroom, yet their social and cultural experiences were “the raw material for their interpretation of laws, just as they are for their ongoing construction of life.” In short, we have judges who work hard to bring justice in complex situations, but they are humans too. We all bring our finite, if best, selves to our positions. We should look for candidates who look as diverse as us. If those candidates are not available, look for those who build lasting, close relationships with diverse communities.
The League of Women Voters, a non-partisan, multi-issue organization encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase public understanding of major policy issues and influences public policy through education and advocacy. All men and women are invited to join the LWV where hands-on work to safeguard democracy leads to civic improvement. For information about the League, visit the website www.lwvmontco.org or voice mail 765-361-2136.