A recent lawsuit challenges Alabama’s state-wide method of electing appellate court judges. National Public Radio (NPR) interviewed retired Federal Magistrate Judge Vanzetta McPherson about the lawsuit. McPherson previously served the Federal Court in Montgomery.
McPherson answered questions from the NPR host about the new election lawsuit. Alabama elects appellate judges in state-wide elections. The lawsuit alleges this state-wide process is a violation of the Federal Voting Rights Act. As McPherson explained in the NPR interview, minorities are not currently represented on Alabama’s appellate courts.
I’m not an expert on the Voting Rights Act. I will let McPherson discuss that issue. However, I have long advocated a change to our appellate election system so that judges could be elected by districts rather than state-wide. I wrote a prior blog post which discussed the issue in 2010. I welcome McPherson’s discussion concerning diversity and representation on our appellate courts.
McPherson believes district-based elections will increase minority representation on our appellate courts. I agree a district-based system would make our courts more diverse. I believe elections based on districts would bring several improvements. In my 2010 post titled Three Ideas for Reform In Alabama’s Judicial System, I discussed benefits of electing Alabama Supreme Court justices by district. As I noted:
Alabama voters presently elect the Chief Justice of our Supreme Court as well as all 8 associate justices in statewide elections. On several occasions, proposals have been made to elect the 8 associate justices by district. Does our current system allow a candidate to neglect certain areas of the state and focus on major media areas when running for office? Does it allow a candidate with very little practical experience simply to run an advertising campaign statewide? By focusing on districts, it would seem more likely that the successful candidate had developed a reputation for quality legal skills within their local community. It might lessen the ability of less qualified candidates to gain election through mass advertising efforts aimed simply at building name recognition. Moreover, it could provide local courts in that district with a specific justice who could respond to emergency issues.
Partisan judicial elections already compromise the integrity of our judicial system. Research suggests a significant relationship between political contributions and the decisions of judges in actual cases. Are judges who receive significant contributions biased? Maybe or maybe not. But, the acceptance of huge outside contributions creates a perception of bias. We deserve a judicial system free of bias or perceived bias. In recent decades, Alabama’s judicial elections have drawn substantial partisan financial contributions from parties with cases before the court. This influx of campaign money also allows candidates who lack experience or qualifications simply to run a massive television campaign.
Want the best appellate judges? Local lawyers know the individuals in their field who possess the best legal skills, the individuals with the most trial experience and the individuals with the proper temperament to be appellate judges. District-based elections would increase the likelihood a candidate with peer respect as an outstanding lawyer or jurist, would be elected. District-based elections would also lessen the likelihood a candidate with outside money could simply mount a successful, slick television ad campaign. And, district-based elections might provide needed diversity on our appellate courts from all areas of the state.
While I’m no expert on the Voting Rights Act, I do want my personal injury clients to have a voice in a court system free of outside or partisan contributions. I want appellate judges who tried cases in their communities and understand the trial process. We are asking these judges to make decisions about trials that impact our citizens. It is essential we have a system that is fair for all.