If Idaho Supreme Court Justice Linda Copple Trout was looking for confirmation that she would have been targeted with another attack campaign, she need wait no longer: It showed up clearly on the Idaho Values Alliance blog in a post by its executive director, Bryan Fischer.
Trout, who has served 15 years on the bench, is opting out this summer in part because, she said, she doesn’t want to go through another ugly campaign for re-election; her court seat is up for election next year. In discussing that, she said that elections probably are not the best way to choose judges. She reasoned: “I think the public feels frustrated because they don’t know how to judge a judge. All of the standard things that people usually use as a measure when they go to the ballot box are not there for judges, because judges don’t take stands and aren’t for something unless it’s something like justice, or timely justice, or something like that. That’s really hard for the public, to judge whether or not somebody really would do a good job.”
Our view is (and has been) that judges should be elected, at least on a retention basis, because they are officials whose job centers around making independent judgments, and that’s the criterion we ordinarily use in considering whether a job ought to be elective or appointive. That said, we agree with Trout’s point: Few voters have a good, clear basis for deciding whether a judge is doing their job well, or whether a non-incumbent would do it well. The major actions of a governor or of a major, or even of many legislators, county commissioners, members of Congress or city council members tend to be more visible and easily grasped than are the actions – collectively – of judges. Too often, one or two actions or decisions becomes the basis for assessing a whole career. A good many thoughtful voters we’ve talked with over the years (and by no means just in Idaho) see the problem. What’s needed, we would argue, is an improved system for tracking the work and decisions judges produce: Better oversight. Idahoans should be encouraged, too, to read Supreme Court decisions for themselves – they’re not written in Latin, and most are actually quite easily understood. With that can come the education voters need to make informed choices.
Probably we shouldn’t be surprised at the headline on Fischer’s commentary today: “Justice Trout: Idahoans are too stupid to pick their own judges.”
She said, of course, nothing of the kind.
But how much does Fischer think Idaho voters actually know about the work of their judges and justices – beyond the smattering of bumper-sticker slogans and two or three high-profile issues? How well-informed does he think the electorate really is?
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