There is contention within the Michigan political system regarding the election of judges and its overall constitutionality and ethics.
This issue has become more prevalent in the political system as of late due to the Michigan Secretary of State making a statement on the activity, highlighting the lack of investigation into shady practices by judges. Since these judges are elected in a similar way to other political candidates, potential problems like acceptance of “dark money,” empty campaign promises and overall disdain for individual rights over interest groups.
When reaching out to the political science department on this topic, professors like Dr. Gorton stated that the practice of electing judges doesn’t go against the Constitution at the federal or the state level but exists as an old check on elites to restore power to the common people.
However, while the process of electing judges doesn’t violate any specific laws, it can lead to acts of partisanship in a field where the individuals need to pay closer attention to the law.
“…these judges can receive contributions from interest groups in the same way that political parties can, leading to campaigns that could ultimately lead to impartial rulings,” said William Gorton, professor of political science.
This practice runs the risk of alienating the voter who may not know much about the political background of these judges, especially because their parties are not listed on the ballot like other candidates. This secret partisanship can almost nullify the campaigns of these judges and thereby makes the whole process useless.
This issue is not limited to Michigan and it exists across the country at a federal and state level. Former Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor actively campaigned against the practice of electing judges during a tour through the states and mentioned some key issues. Her words on this trail still hold true today.
“When you enter one of these courtrooms, the last thing you want to worry about is whether the judge is more accountable to a campaign contributor or an ideological group than to the law,” said Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
At the forefront of these issues is the increase in pro-business rulings due to campaign monetary contributions, a decrease in judicial diversity as well as a stronger inclination for these elected judges to rule in favor of death penalties.
The Supreme Court has ruled on this issue back in 2015 in Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar, wherein it was decided that personal campaign contributions could be prohibited by states in order to keep the courtroom fair and impartial. While this case balances free speech against government interests through the due process clause, it still leaves a lot open at the state level in terms of how to follow through with the precedent.
How does this impact the average student attending Alma College? Gorton responded with, “this affects every individual in some way due to the way this partisanship skews rulings beyond a completely fair case.” If one were to find themselves in a serious legal case with an elected judge, they are at the mercy of the individual judge’s ideological beliefs over impartiality.