Chief Among Our Concerns: Creating a Dialogue About Judicial Selection

October 21, 2012

Chief Justice Ruth V. McGregor (Ret.) served on the Arizona Supreme Court from February 1998 until June 30, 2009. She was the Court's Chief Justice from June 2005 until her retirement. As we launch IAALS Online, she joins three other former Chief Justices in the conversation about IAALS and its initiatives by discussing the work of our Quality Judges Initiative

Welcome to our discussion about the judges who lead our nation's courts. During the last several years, the Quality Judges Initiative (QJI) at IAALS has worked to define the qualities that make a good judge and then to describe how best to develop a selection system that is most likely to select judges with those essential qualities. You can find our report on the qualities we, and a group of people from around the country and the political spectrum, find important in Cornerstones of State Judicial Selection. QJI also works on proposing processes for evaluating judges against those criteria. I am a former Chief Justice of the Arizona Supreme Court, and currently an advisor to QJI. There is nothing more important, in my view, than the question of how we choose and how we evaluate the men and women who sit behind the bench in the courts of this nation.

This election season will give all of us an opportunity to think about how much – or how little – we know about our state supreme court justices. Most of you can name the candidates for President, for Congress, and for your Governor. But do you know how your state supreme court justices are selected and whether any judicial candidates will appear on the November ballot in your state?

You may be a voter in one of the 18 states that will select supreme court justices in contestable elections. If so, are you following the campaigns? What are the criteria that you will use to decide how to cast your vote? QJI will be watching judicial campaign advertising around the country with a view toward identifying whether the candidates themselves are focused on the attributes that we think make for quality judges, and whether the voters are similarly predisposed. We want to know whether the attributes in QJI's Cornerstones receive emphasis or are ignored.

Others of you may be voters in one of those states that, as part of a merit selection system, uses retention elections, in which a "yes or no" vote determines whether a judge or justice stays on the bench. We are curious about what sources you use to learn about the judges on the ballot and what infomration you find helpful in making your voting decision. QJI is particularly interested in watching the retention elections in Florida and Iowa, where organzied challenges to some or all of the justices standing for retention have been announced. If you have seen those challenges, tell us your reaction.

QJI also will be following ballot measures in Arizona, Florida, and Missouri that, if adopted, will impact those states' judicial selection systems. We will pass on our observations to you, so stay tuned!

Selecting qualified, impartial judges to lead our third branch of government is a matter of great importance. We believe all of us share responsibility for supporting an approach that assures selection of such judges and, through this blog, we will do our best to provide a forum for a conversation that raises the important questions.