In today’s Birmingham News, there is an article regarding the upcoming appointment for the replacement of Greg Shaw on the Court of Criminal Appeals. Greg Shaw was recently elected to the Supreme Court of Alabama, and therefore, Governor Riley will appoint his successor on the Court of Criminal Appeals. Given the fact that Governor Riley is a republican, he will most certainly fill the vacancy with another republican. This begs the question: should our judges be elected in a nonpartisan manner?
There is one democrat on the appellate courts of Alabama: Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb. Most agree that the general public does not know the candidates for our courts so should they be elected through the rebublican-democrat system? Do too many special interests get involved in these judicial races? Are our courts now composed of elected officials who want to vote a certain way in order to continue receiving special interest money so they can continue to get re-elected? Are our courts representative of the people of Alabama so that the system is fair?
While John Grisham’s recent novel, The Appeal, is fiction, there is some truth to it which gives insight into these judicial elections. In The Appeal, a major corporation was found liable to a woman whose husband and son died as a result of the company’s illegal dumping of chemicals which reached their water system in Mississippi. The verdict was so substantial, that the CEO of the company decided to appeal the case.
During that appeal, the CEO knew that there would be an upcoming election for a Justice on the Mississippi Supreme Court. Consequently, he hired a firm which handpicked a candidate to run against the "liberal" incumbent. They then executed a multi-million dollar marketing plan to paint the incumbent as a bleeding heart liberal and paint the challenger as a conservative, god-fearing, tort reform individual whom they thought the Mississippi citizens would identify with and elect. In Alabama, Greg Shaw and Deborah Bell Paseur spent almost $4,000,000.00 on their collective campaigns. This shows that Grisham’s book is not farfetched.
What are the problems with this? First, it gives the appearnance of an inherent conflict of interest. Judges should rule on the law, not make law. That function is reserved for the congressional branch of government, and to describe judges in these manners misleads the public with respect to their function. Second, these policies take away the check on power which juries serve. When judges can continuously substitute their judgment for unanimous 12 person jury verdicts (Alabama requires juries to rule unanimously), jury functions are eroded, and in turn, a MAJOR constitutional right is eroded.
In my experience as a personal injury attorney in Alabama, juries usually get it right. It is hard to get twelve people to decide on where to go for dinner much less get them to decide the fates of individuals after a trial. Yet, people do it every day in the courts of Alabama, and they do it unanimously. There are safeguards when juries get it wrong, but they rarely do.
There is currently a movement within the legal community to appoint judges. Attorneys usually agree on which judges are fair and on which judges go a certain way. In this system, three candidates would be presented to the governor for appointment. This is already done for vacancies which arise in Jefferson County. Most attorneys and the citizens of Alabama want fair judges – judges who rule on the law and not on their personal beliefs based upon which special interest groups helped get them elected.
The Judicial Branch of government is a major part of everyone’s life. Most people dismiss it and feel as though it is a branch left to the lawyers. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The clients who come into our office often learn this fact too late – when something unfortunate happens to them. Don’t wait until then. Take part now. Know your judges, and during the next election, get involved and don’t let the special interest groups control who the judges will be to decide the fate of your auto accident.