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While Judicial Elections May Make the Judicial System More Democratic, Would They Necessarily Make It More Just?

The Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022, triggering a national uproar over what many perceived as a violation of their individual rights. The decision also set the stage for renewed discussions surrounding various aspects of the judicial system. Some began to call for term limits and elections for justices, accusing the judiciary of being the least democratic branch of government.

As of late, other controversies have embroiled U.S. courts, as well, primarily one involving Justice Clarence Thomas, who allegedly accepted several expensive gifts from patrons and is the reason the Supreme Court just adopted a Code of Ethics.

Recently, democrat Daniel McCaffery was elected to a 10-year term as a Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice. The deciding factor of the election was abortion and is what ultimately defeated Republican candidate Carolyn Carluccio. 

There are various methods of judicial selection across the United States, including partisan elections, non-partisan elections, the Michigan method, assisted appointment, gubernatorial appointment and legislative elections.

State court judges in Pennsylvania are elected by partisan elections, hence why McCaffery was able to run as a Democrat and Carluccio ran as a Republican. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court currently has five Democratic judges and two Republican judges. The judges serve a 10-term, after which they must participate in a retention-election in order to stay in office.

This system is contrasted with the appointment system, in which elected officials appoint judges to the bench. For example, gubernatorial appointment occurs when the governor appoints state judges, and the President of the United States appoints Supreme Court Justices (who must be confirmed by the Senate).

George Washington started the practice of judicial appointment, adding 10 Justices in total to the bench before stepping down. What are the benefits and drawbacks of such a strategy?

Justices that serve life terms are theoretically immune from political pressure. There is no need for re-election, therefore none of their actions need be motivated to appease a certain population. They can only be removed by impeachment of the House of Representatives and conviction of the Senate, something that has only happened once in U.S. history. Thus, they are theoretically solely motivated by their allegiance to the Constitution and to justice.

However, the same systems designed to protect the Justices also make them undemocratic. Appointed judges serving life-terms are neither elected by the people nor held accountable by them. Furthermore, as evidenced by Justice Thomas, true consequences to judicial malpractice are rarely applied. 

This is not necessarily a bad thing. The Supreme Court was instrumental in the battle for civil rights, passing several pieces of legislation that were incredibly unpopular to the general public. The justices’ commitment to equality under the law despite severe opposition was essential.

Judicial elections make judges privy to the same corruption and influences that politicians are subject to. Campaigns are incredibly expensive and arduous-rarely does a politician win an election without support of their party and generous donations.

Take the Pennsylvania Supreme Court election, for instance. Several organizations related to abortion, both pro-life and pro-choice, poured millions into the campaign to influence the outcome.

Unfortunately, this is where lobbying enters the equation in the broader political sphere. Donors are able to influence their beneficiaries by providing or threatening to withhold donations, thereby shaping political decisions.

“[Judicial elections] are a necessary step in the right direction,” Villanova sophomore Owen Dorlac said. 

He believes that elections are the catalyst of proper reform of the judicial system.

I, for one, however, am not so certain. No doubt there is reform to be made, a strict code of ethics must be adhered to and consequences must be put in place. However, judges must continue to serve long terms (not necessarily lifetime ones) and be difficult to remove from service in order to preserve their independence.

Judges are supposed to be impartial beacons of justice, swayed by none but the rule of law. Elections would make the judicial system more democratic, but would it necessarily make it more just?

 

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