When I was a child, I used to enjoy the masterpiece movie Miracle on 34th Street. I often wondered, however, about the real function of the fellow with the cigar, whispering in the ear of the judge who had to adjudicate the bona fides of Santa Claus.
As a senior lawyer and arbitrator, I now know all too well the function and influence of bundlers and consultants in judicial campaigns.
It is past time for our state bar and the citizens of this state to debate, consider and recommend a new system for the appointment of judges, who affect every single aspect of our lives. They are the neutral last line of defense of our civil rights. But the present spectacle of judicial campaigns is repugnant, the underhanded tactics demeaning and the hurling accusations between candidates disgusting.
We are losing great judges who either cannot or will not become politicians. Most lay citizens have no idea who they are voting for or why. Judicial candidates are forced to solicit endorsements from many partisan groups simply interested in influence.
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Most lawyers contribute small amounts and do so in order to support and advance the quality of the bench. But some do it for raw influence and tactical advantage. Every arbitrator must disclose every relationship with any party and any lawyer in the case. But no trial lawyer is required to disclose to the opposition the relationship with the trial judge or the amount of contribution or the lawyer’s role in the campaign. Nor is it an automatic grounds for disqualification for a lawyer to have been a major bundler.
Judges staring at a competitive race are forced to default to political street currency and are exposed to its intimidation. Lawyers and firms who are major bundlers are not to be crossed. Lawyers who are pressed dare not contribute for fear of subtle prejudice to their matters. In the end, this circus of money raises the appearance of questionable incestuous relationships and only further erodes whatever confidence in the integrity of the justice system the public has left.
This is not to say that the present political appointment/retention system of judges is a paragon of virtue. Games are played within this system as well. We can do better and we should involve more people affected by the system than the lawyer-loaded nominating commissions. Who says that lawyers must be the dominant voice in the selection of judicial nominees to the governor? Or even that the governor should be the final appointing officer? Let’s spend some time as good citizens to discuss, debate and legislate a better way to get the finest, most diverse bench we can and close down the circus.
Thomas R. Spencer, Coral Gables