Keeping judicial campaigns judicious

Candidates this year bear a special duty – By Ky. Chief Justice Joseph E. Lambert

Kentucky faces an unprecedented number of judicial elections in 2006. More than 80 contested judicial seats will be on the November general election ballot, and most of the judges chosen will serve eight years. Judges of the district court, circuit court, Court of Appeals and four Supreme Court justices will be selected in these contested elections. These elections will test our commitment to the constitutional principle of judicial non-partisanship.
Recent changes in federal and state law now permit (but do not require) judicial candidates to go further than ever before with disclosure of their views on disputed legal or political issues. In view of these changes, special-interest groups and their fund-raising affiliates are demanding that judicial candidates state their positions on a wide range of issues.
Some candidates may attempt to curry favor with perceived voting blocks by broadly declaring their views on the controversial issues of our time. If this occurs, politicians and special interest groups will succeed in harming our constitutional tradition of fair and impartial courts.
It’s already happened in some states. In a recent Supreme Court election in West Virginia, one special interest group spent $3.6 million to defeat an incumbent justice, and an advertisement in that election falsely implied that he was a child molester. Similar spending and distortions have also occurred recently in judicial elections in Illinois, New Mexico, Mississippi, Michigan and Ohio.
Some voters will insist that they need to know the views of judicial candidates on “hot-button” issues. While this seems reasonable at first glance, when considered more deeply, it is not. Every person who enters a courtroom is entitled to have a judge who is free from political influence or prior commitment. Courts maintain the checks and balances in our democracy, and when judicial candidates make self-serving declarations for or against a particular issue, they undermine our constitutional foundation. Every citizen has a right to demand that courts follow our constitutions and laws and that they not be beholden to special interest groups.
But some voters will ask how they are to decide unless they know how a candidate feels about issues of interest to them. Experience tells us that candidate answers on a questionnaire or comments made during a speech or an interview provide little real insight. Kentuckians have learned to be skeptical of political promises and bold declarations of principle. Self-serving campaign statements designed to exploit the views of a particular group are unreliable in predicting the outcome of an actual case. And one who makes such statements may be required to disqualify himself when the issue finally appears in court. The best way to judge a candidate for judicial office is to look at the whole person. Voters should look at the candidate’s background, education, employment, family circumstance, civic and religious involvement, personal habits and other factors that can’t be manipulated during an election campaign.
Far more reliable than what a judicial candidate says is who he is; and the best evidence of that is the life he’s lived and what others say about him. Court clerks, bailiffs, probation and parole officers, lawyers, police officers, news organizations and others familiar with the judicial process are good sources of information. A campaign ad paid for by a special-interest group featuring a person who has lost a case before a judge is not a reliable source.
For 30 years, the Kentucky constitution has provided for non-partisan judicial selection. Though perhaps not flawlessly, our system has worked well, and the Kentucky judiciary is recognized as a national model. Political parties and special interest groups should respect our constitution and keep the process of judicial selection above their partisan interests. Courts are a vital part of our democracy. No person and no group should be allowed to weaken Kentucky courts. Our rights under the constitution depend on fair and impartial courts and we must reject political and special interest interference in our judiciary.
The writer is chief justice of Kentucky.

Michael Stevens of has posted the following resources discussing judicial campaign issues:

“HL Editorial: “Let’s keep state’s judicial races out of campaign mud”"
KLB, Apr. 3, 2006
“Judicial Elections and Avoidance of Partisan Political Identification in the Campaign”
KLB, Mar. 29, 2006
“Judicial Elections: Herald-Leader Story on Contributions to Judicial Candidates”
KLB, Mar. 28, 2006
Opinion: Another Story on What KLB Calls “The ‘New’ Judicial Political Reality” and “The Price of Justice”
Kentucky Law Blog (KLB), Mar. 22, 2006
“News: The New Judicial Campaigning Gets Scrutinized Under the Blogoscope”
KLB, Mar. 16, 2006
Letter to Editor: “It is time we revisit appointing our judges rather than subjecting them to the elective process”
KLB referencing Courier-Journal ltr to editor, Mar. 9, 2006
“KLB Commentary on Campaigning While on the Goverment’s Payroll”,
KLB, dtd Mar. 8, 2006
The Court under attack  (
KLB Linked to it on Mar. 8, 2006
“Courts: Is Lady Justice Crying Now Under that Blindfold?”
KLB, dtd Mar. 4, 2006
“News: Stumbo challenges two special justices in hiring case”
KLB, dtd Mar. 4, 2006
“Blue Grass Report: More Fallout From Governor Fletcher’s Appointment Of Campaign Contributors To Supreme Court To Hear His Appeal”
KLB posting on Mar. 2, 2006 w/link to BG Report
“Judges: Courier Journal Editorial on Justice Graves’ Dropping Out of Race”
KLB, Mar. 2, 2006
“Judicial Elections: Money Talks But Will Candidates Balk?”
KLB, Feb. 20, 2006
“Judicial Elections: Campaign Finances and the Question of Partisanship”
KLB, Jan. 28, 2006
“Judicial Campaigns: Personal Solicitation of Funds by Candidates?”
KLB Posting and Comment referencing Indiana Law Blog post, dtd Jan. 26, 2006
“Judicial Elections: General Counsel to Republican Party Is Member of Judicial Campaign Conduct Committee”
KLB, Jan. 23, 2006
“Ethics: Boy Does this SCOTUS cert sound familiar – recusal and donations, oh my!”
KLB Post, dated Dec. 29, 2006
“Judicial Donations Not a Problem Exclusive to Kentucky”
KLB Post with reference to Indiana law Blog, dated Dec. 19, 2006
“Op-Ed: The New Political Reality of Judicial Campaigns”
KLB, Dec.11, 2006
“Judicial Elections: Campaign donation to justice questioned”
KLB, Dec. 4, 2006
“Judicial Complaint Filed Against Chief Justice Lambert and his Wife”
KLB Post, Aug. 1, 2005
“Getting Your Supreme Attention – Judicial Elections to be Monitored in 2006″
KLB, July 9, 2005
Judicial Ethics Opinions can be found and searched by clicking here.

Posted by Michael Stevens on Tuesday, May 09, 2006 at 11:39 AM in 2006 Election, Elections and Campaigns, Ethics and Professional Responsibility, Judiciary and Judges | Permalink

Comments are closed.