Bagels On the Bench a Bad Idea
Who would you rather have sitting in judgment on you? An excellent judge with a difficult-to-pronounce, foreign-looking name? Or a bagel-shop owner who only recently reactivated her license to practice law? A seasoned jurist who had over 20 years on the bench won the respect of her peers? Or a former commercial litigator rated "not qualified" by her local bar association? Last week, California voters selected the bagel-shop owner, Lynn Diane Olson, and rejected the sitting judge, Dzintra Janavs, in an election contest marred by allegations of prejudice and vote-buying.
The good news is that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger immediately after Janavs' election loss declared that he would reappoint her to the bench as soon as possible. The bad news is that California's judicial election laws permit this sort of bizarre result. The good news is that the contest between Janavs and Olson was so one-sided, experience- and qualifications-wise, that is spawned a fury of media coverage that put political pressure on the governor to act. The bad news is that this sort of thing is happening more and more often around the nation as judgeships become more and more politicized and as judicial campaigns begin to look more and more like their congressional counterparts.
On Sunday, the Los Angeles Times published a house editorial focusing upon Olson's win. The Times' editors wrote: "Although we continue to believe that Janavs largely was a victim of her name, there were undoubtedly some who went to the polls who were happy to vote against her out of anger at some of her rulings. Others were impressed with Olson's mailers. Still others may have been impressed with her bagels. That's politics. We cannot simultaneously pretend that we respect voters' decisions and then overturn them if we think they were wrong."
I think that's a cop out; an apology for a judicial-selection system that tolerates if not encourages uninformed voters to make spur-of-the-moment decisions about judicial candidates they know nothing about. That's why a woman named "Lynn" won out over a woman named "Dzintra" and that's not nearly good enough. The other two branches of government are completely controlled by popular vote. This story, and too many others like it, remind us why the third branch shouldn't be.
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