The billboard proclaims that we should "Elect John Rodgers." Some guy who's running for District Court. I don't know this John Rodgers, and I bet I'm not the only one. Not to pick on John Rodgers, but if we voters took a test on District Court contenders, we'd all flunk.
The judges and attorneys who signed on to Rodgers' ads may think they're helping voters make informed decisions. Still, the campaign material our candidates are posting, mailing and pinning all over town sends a different message. Name recognition and association is critical.
Here's my all-time favorite example of name-dropping: "Vote for Judge Donna Wilson" -- and then, just below, "Married to Mark Wilson." Honest. She had this on all her campaign literature. The apparent logic: Like her husband (himself an attorney), like her. But then that's how our system works. With multitude of names on the ballot and a minimum of meaningful information about any of the candidates, what else do the voters have to go on, except for those "expert" endorsements?
John Rodgers has supplied a lot of signatures in his huge advertisement. Some names I respect; others, I don't. Most, I don't know. How useful, then, is the long list of names?
Would-be judges like John Rodgers don't talk much in their ads about issues. No one, so far as I know, has ever run on the "Hang 'em High" platform. Or this one: "Two Strikes and Three Balls. Ambivalence: That's What Justice is All About. Vote Dingleworthy for Judge."
Slogans like those would amuse some voters and horrify others, but they're too unsafe, haven't been poll-tested, wouldn't be prudent. That's why candidates for judicial seats don't talk about the issues much.
Rodgers' advertisement informs us that he is a very busy judge, and, oh, so hard-working. Is that really what we want from a man who might put us in jail sometime down the way? Are we really all that keen on having him be industrious and effective?
And -- have you noticed? -- judicial candidates always mention their "experience." They tell us about all their years as attorneys -- 10 years, 20 years, 30 years of practing at the bar. But did they practice in what we believe to be the proper manner? Or have they been practicing according to principles that we don't accept? They tell us nothing about their clients, or their causes, or what they believe in. For all the unsuspecting voter knows, a candid ad might read like this: "Protect Porn Dealers -- Dingleworthy Has, For 20 Years! Vote For A Judge With Experience!"
Betcha never saw that ad.
Issues aside, why don't candidates at least discuss pertinent personal and professional qualities? When I was a member of the City Plan Commission, I had the opportunity to watch a District Judge candidate, Patti Connolly Walker, in action. She was terrific: well-prepared, thoughtful, self- possessed, reflective, fair-minded and insightful. These are all important qualities for a judge to have. But based on her campaign ads, who could have known?
I believe that our judges should hold office for reasons other than that they are hard-working, efficient, and related to someone nice. I'm all for appointed judges, and although I've read the occasional study that purports to prove that elected judges and appointed judges usually end up in about the same place, I don't believe it. It's a counter-intuitive claim.
In the South, and for good reason, NAACP lawyers strove to have their cases heard before federal judges, who are appointed for life.
Locally, if there has been any breakthrough at all on the River Park Square issue, it's because the mayor's special counsel, Laurel Siddoway, managed to get the case before a federal judge, who she knew would rise above our petty local prejudices.
The ideal, for lower courts, would be to bring to the bench judges who would be in, but not of, the community. And I'm not suggesting that lower court judges need be appointed for life. Seven-year terms, subject to reappointment, would ensure the necessary level of accountability while overlapping gubernatorial elections, thereby protecting the judges' independence.
Given our state's addiction to irrational governance, I doubt my plan has a chance. So, left to my own devises, and not able to strike the necessary balance between good guy endorsements and bad guy endorsements, I'm going to do what I've always done: When voting for judges, both high and low, I support women and candidates with weird names.