Monday, March 2, 2009

Pitchfork Rebellion

Virginia is one of only two states in which the legislature appoints judges, frequently in a partisan deal made largely behind closed doors. The other state with legislative judicial appointments is South Carolina. Some other states elect judges complete with all the campaign funds, lobbyists, and political parties - talk about partisan and potentially corrupting.
But, about 30 states use a variation of the Missouri Plan which attempts to remove most of the partisanship. Judges are selected on the basis of merit through a process that uses a nonpartisan commission to review applications, interview candidates, and select three names which are submitted to the governor. Usually the governor picks one, but if not, the commission selects one after 6o days. Not to be left out, the voters also have a say. After serving for a year the judge stands for a retention election at the next general election.
CCC commented on the Virginia's system of Judging Judges back in August. The 2009 session of the General Assembly saw some of the same deal making and gridlock over appointments that characterized prior sessions. Also bitter arguments over the evaluations of judges. The legislature ended this year with vacancies in several courts (although rumor is they may try to deal with that at the reconvened session next month).
Meanwhile, a citizens group calling itself the Pitchfork Rebellion is calling for term limits for judges, citizen input in the selection of judges, open hearings, and a new judicial evaluation system. It grew out of dissatisfaction with the selection of judges in Fairfax Co., Hampton Roads, and Chesterfield Co. Organizers connected with each other online and now plan to set up a nonprofit group to coordinate activities and raise the issue statewide. Elizabeth Hering of Leesburg, one of the leaders of the movement, said:
"Overall, our goal is to take back our courts and achieve some measure of judicial accountability in Virginia and weed out bad jurists. No man should be above the law. However, we have a judiciary with absolute, unfettered power."
In fundamental ways, the judge selection process shares some striking similarities with the redistricting process for legislative seats. Both processes:
  • are controlled by the General Assembly
  • bring out the worst abuses of partisanship
  • sometimes result in unnecessary gridlock
  • are more about holding power than good government
  • run contrary to ideals of democracy - citizen involvement, liberty, fairness, and accountability of public officials
  • have been successfully reformed in other states by delegating responsibility to nonpartisan commissions
  • require (for meaningful and lasting reform) amending the Virginia Constitution
Things move slowly in Virginia politics. There is a bit of arrogance that we do things right in the Commonwealth and can't learn better ways from other states. It often takes many years and multiple sessions to finally enact good ideas. With a gubernatorial election and 100 members of the House of Delegates facing voters (in their gerrymandered districts), 2009 would be a good time to put reform of redistricting and the selection of judges squarely on the front burner of political discussions. Grab your pitchfork!

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