The Judicial Ethics Forum (JEF)

An Academic Discussion of Judicial Ethics, Discipline & Disqualification

Elected Judges and Denial of Due Process

Posted by judicialethicsforum on Wednesday, March, 4, 2009

(The following is on judicial elections and due process, from Understanding Lawyers’ Ethics (3d ed. 2004).   I’m concerned that those on the court who are hostile to recusal (e.g., Justices Scalia and Breyer) will use the extreme facts of the W.Va. case to sharply limit the statutory and constitutional recusal requirement.)
The most important potential significance of White is the strong suggestion in the opinions of Justices O’Connor and Ginsburg (writing for a total of five justices) that no judge subject to reelection can decide a controversial case without violating due process.  As discussed earlier in this chapter [9: “The Impartial Judge”], due process is denied if there is a “possible temptation to the average . . . judge . . . which might lead him not to hold the balance nice, clear, and true. . . .”  There is substantial reason to believe that elective judges are influenced in controversial cases by the threat of being voted out of office.  Particularly in a case involving issues like the death penalty or abortion rights, therefore, there is a strong argument that a decision by such a judge violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Indeed, Justice O’Connor’s concerns ultimately go beyond the controversial case, to challenge the entire system of electing judges.  She concurs separately to express her objections to “judicial elections generally.”  Referring to the state’s claim of a compelling interest in “an actual and perceived … impartial judiciary,” she notes that “the very practice of electing judges undermines this interest.”  Defining impartiality as being free of any stake in the outcome of a case, she explains that when judges are subject to regular elections, “they are likely to feel that they have at least some personal stake in the outcome of every publicized case.”  That is, elected judges “cannot help being aware that if the public is not satisfied with the outcome of a particular case, it could hurt their reelection prospects.”  Moreover, even when judges succeed in overcoming their concern with voters’ displeasure, “the public’s confidence in the judiciary could be undermined simply by the possibility that judges would be unable to do so.”
O’Connor refers to a law review article that quotes former California Supreme Court Justice Otto Kaus’ statement that ignoring the political consequences of controversial cases is like “ignoring a crocodile in your bathtub.”  She also relies on an article that cites statistics indicating that judges who face elections are far more likely to override jury sentences of life without parole and impose the death penalty.
In addition, O’Connor discusses the pernicious effects of campaign fundraising in judicial elections, noting, for example, that the thirteen candidates in a partisan election for five seats on the Alabama Supreme Court in 2000 spent an average of $1,092,076 on their campaigns.  Not surprisingly, lawyers and litigants who appear before the judges are among the major contributors to judges’ campaigns, and “relying on campaign donations may leave judges feeling indebted to certain parties or interest groups.”
When lawyers and litigants appear to be buying influence with campaign contributions, the appearance of partiality goes beyond the highly publicized case, tainting any case in which money may have passed.  Thus, O’Connor’s ultimate due process challenge is to the entire system of judicial election of judges, in cases of both major and minor public interest.
Justice Ginsburg analyzes some of the Court’s most important cases requiring disqualification of state judges on due process grounds.  Her analysis provides three conclusions.  First, a litigant is deprived of due process where the judge who hears his case has a “direct, personal, substantial and pecuniary” interest in ruling against him.  Second, the judge’s interest is sufficiently “direct” if the judge knows that “his success and tenure in office depend on certain outcomes.”  Third, due process does not require a showing that the judge is biased in fact as a result of his self-interest.  Rather, the cases have “always endeavored to prevent even the probability of unfairness.”
Ginsburg’s immediate focus in White is on the judge who has made or implied a commitment to voters to decide cases a certain way, and who fears voter retaliation if she fails to deliver.  Her remarks, however, apply equally to any judge whose reelection may depend upon not offending voters in the next election.  Such a judge may be thought to have a direct, personal, substantial, and pecuniary interest in ruling against certain litigants, Ginsburg notes, “for she may be voted off the bench and thereby lose her salary and emoluments” if her decision displeases the voters.  Quoting The Federalist No. 79, she adds: “‘In the general course of human nature, a power over a man’s subsistence amounts to a power over his will.’”
The Chair of the ABA Commission on the 21st Century Judiciary[, Edward W. Madiera,] agrees.  “The commission found,” he has written, “that the greatest threats to the impartiality and independence of judges, whether real or perceived, are posed by the prospect of ouster from office based on the content of judicial decisions.”
Because states can no longer prevent judicial candidates from announcing views on legal and political issues, some states will very likely abandon judicial elections.  To the extent that they do not, a litigant in a case involving a controversial issue will have a strong argument that due process requires disqualification of any judge who is subject to reelection. 

By: Monroe Freedman, Hofstra Law School

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