Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Problem with Better Courts Now

This year, a group called “Better Courts Now" put up four candidates to challenge sitting judges on the California Superior Court in San Diego. The challengers claim to be running to impose what they consider “Christian values” on the courts. An AP story reported one of the challengers claimed that “God has called upon us to do this only with the judiciary.”

The incumbent judges all won handily against these challenges.

I recently debated a supporter of Better Courts Now on a local morning news show.The approach of Better Courts Now, to impose a specific religious perspective on judicial elections, seems inappropriate to many observers. It’s unsettling to people of faith, myself included.

But why? In most elections for public office, we usually tolerate interest groups jockeying for influence. It’s a part of our pluralistic democracy. It’s just politics.

I accept that anything with an election is inherently political. But I do not believe that just because something’s inherently political, then every political act within it is fair game.

There are some campaign tactics that are inappropriate, even if they’re entirely legal under the system. For example, we object strongly to race-baiting, or spreading salacious and false rumors about candidates. Campaigns may be allowed to do so, but they still shouldn’t do so.

Similarly, it’s inappropriate for judicial candidates to assert that they’ll impose specific views on the administration of justice (religious or otherwise). The office is intended to be impartial and fair-minded.

The problem with Better Courts Now is that they are trying to bring in a specific narrow set of values to an office that is supposed to be neutral. Sure, judges are human beings, and they carry the same biases and weaknesses as all of us. But a judge has an obligation to strive for impartiality. Neutrality may ultimately be a fiction, but it’s a useful fiction.

Better Courts Now chucks the idea of impartiality out the window. The whole basis of their campaign, to impose a set of values on a body of neutral arbiters, is antithetical to the function of a judge. Voters are appropriately left to wonder who are these candidates running for judge, who so fundamentally misunderstand the very nature of the offices they seek.

The supporters of Better Courts Now also make the incongruous claim that judges who apply their particular set of religious and social values, are better able to render impartial legal decisions. This idea is inconsistent, if not incoherent.

A judicial activist is a judge that allows their own set of values to supersede other more legitimate legal policies. In the same breath, Better Courts Now claims they will prevent the imposition of personal values in the administration of justice, by imposing personal values in the administration of justice.

Voters don’t like this kind of double dealing, and they appropriately rejected it.