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The problem with the judiciary

There are nearly 900 judges in the US, and approximately 100 face disciplinary sanctions each year, according to the National Center for State Courts.

In 2001, for instance, 104 judges faced public disciplinary proceedings. Of these judges,

14 were briefly suspended.

Six resigned.

Only eight were removed from office.

Despite sanctions, suspended judges often remain eligible to return to the bench, revealing systemic issues in judicial accountability.

Financial incentives and bribery from corporations, lawyers, and firms can influence rulings, reduce efficiency, and hinder public access to the judicial system. Partisan political appointments allow governors to fill judicial vacancies with their preferred candidates, while election campaigns for judges are often financed by powerful interests. Federal judges wield supreme power as the final interpreters of the Constitution, tasked with checking other branches of government and lower court decisions.

Article III of the Constitution states that judges “shall hold their offices during good behavior,” yet this standard is not explicitly defined. The American Bar Association cites undisputed integrity as paramount for judges at all levels of government, but this “consistent adherence to high ethical standards” is frequently overlooked.

The NCSC notes judges face disciplinary sanctions for neglecting administrative duties, abusing power, having improper financial relationships, or engaging in improper legal practices. However, the legal process is slow, with most states handling only one or two formal cases annually. This lack of precedent leads to inconsistent disciplinary outcomes, often resulting in warnings, brief suspensions, or private resolutions rather than removal from the bench.

Cases of misconduct are also kept confidential until after elections, leaving the public unaware and unable to influence their voting choices for elected judges until the judge is reelected to serve their typical six-year term.

There is even Supreme Court precedent to resist impeachment of elected judges. The court claimed in 1994’s case In re Peck that “The power to remove those holding elected constitutional office should be used only in extreme circumstances.” Since the Supreme Court serves as the default reviewing court for punishments in disciplinary proceedings, there is often reliance on these precedents rather than a critical examination of present unethical behavior.

Ultimately, the responsibility falls on voters to make informed decisions regarding their elected judges. However, most of the voting population has little understanding of the judiciary – approximately 25% of voters who go to the polls do not cast any vote in judicial contests.

By understanding the judiciary’s pitfalls, you can make informed choices in judicial elections. Researching judges’ prior experience, endorsements, and using resources like the NCSC and Ballotpedia’s judicial elections page will help you stay informed.

Advocating for universal background checks for judicial candidates promotes transparency. While the justice system may not always reflect the integrity we hope for, your informed vote and voice are powerful tools in shaping a just judiciary.

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