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.

By Andrew Cohen |  June 13, 2006; 2:30 PM ET
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Judges campaigning and running for office is an akward phenomenon, but if they are appointed, aren't they just getting an appointment because they adhere to some politician's views? Sure removing judges is relatively non-occurrence, but how likely is it a judge will begin ruling different once they are "independent?" The People elect the politicians and then the politicians pick the judges...doesn't seem radically different. However, I would agree appointing judges instead of electing them would potentially fill benches with more qualified judges instead of judges with their name more known to an uneducated electorate.

Posted by: R.Enochs | June 13, 2006 10:05 PM

Might appearing before the "Bagel" judge bring to mind a desire for a "smear"? Good lox!

Posted by: Shag from Brookline | June 14, 2006 06:07 AM

If there is any segment of the body of elected officials that should have strictly publicly funded campaigns, this is it.

Posted by: CT | June 14, 2006 04:47 PM

The article and the terms of the debate are examples of why democracy fails. If Mr. Cohen had any depth, he would offer an analysis of Dzintra Janavs' rulings. Too many Republican judges have favored the interests of corporate business over the middle class, have limitied privacy, expanded the powers of the executive branch and generally infringed on traditional liberties when "national security" is invoked. Is Ms. Janavs a member of the conservative right? Mr. Cohen doesn't offer and insight, instead he brings in the immigration issue which is irrelevant to the nature of Ms. Janavs' judicial philosophy and her rulings on the bench. At least the Los Angeles Times considered philosophy and rulings relevant, "there were undoubtedly some who went to the polls who were happy to vote against her out of anger at some of her rulings." The elite Mr. Cohen looks down on the small business owner of a bagel shop, Ms. Olson, without commenting on the issues she raised in the election. Perhaps her experience of the real world, common sense and political savvy might ground her political and judicial philosophy. But how could a reader know when Mr. Cohen doesn't tell us about the issues raised in her campaign lilterature and the philosophy she espoused there.

Posted by: AKAMAI | June 15, 2006 02:42 AM

Here in Cleveland just about anyone named Russo, Corrigan or Celebrezze can be elected to a judgeship regardless of political affiliation or qualifications. However I don't think the situation would improve much by having judges be appointed by our other leaders, due to the current partisan nature of politics.
Response to AKAMAI - Mr Cohen did post links to several other articles from which a curious reader could get the information you found lacking in his article.

Posted by: Bob | June 15, 2006 12:37 PM

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