Calls for judicial term limits or for election of judges are heard from both liberals and conservatives. Common triggers include criminal sentencing that is perceived to be too lenient and the overturning of popular laws. Absent reason to impeach, federal judges are essentially appointed for life or until they voluntarily resign or retire. Some states follow a similar approach, or impose a mandatory retirement age that accomplishes a similar result. In other states, however, judges are elected—just like those running for political office. Is this a good idea? A basic justification for lifetime appointments is that it frees a judge to render decisions impartially—even if the result might prove to be unpopular (at least at the time) with the majority of the voting population--without fear of consciously or unconsciously trying to pander to the majority in order to improve the judge’s chances of being re-elected. Election proponents--and opponents, for that matter--might claim that elections would tend to ensure that judges are accountable to the mood of the citizens.
In states where judges are appointed by the Governor, the state’s citizens basically cede immediate control of judicial appointments to a democratically elected official, but they retain long-term influence over the judiciary because if a Governor appoints judges who prove to be unpopular with enough citizens, the citizens are able to elect an opponent who promises to employ different criteria for his or her judicial appointments. In this sense then, over time, the judicial system is accountable to the will of the citizens--though a gubernatorial candidate's judicial preferences may not, given the range of issues at stake, get prioritized by voters on election day. Still, considering the concern about undue influence of special interests in state and federal legislative and executive elections, it is hard to see how extending that to the judiciary would improve our government. // Michael Racette
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