Thursday, May 3, 2012

Why Do We Elect Judges?


Neal C. Lemery

Justice of the Peace

In the May election, voters will elect the next Justice of the Peace for our county, as well as judges of the Oregon Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court.

In Oregon, vacancies in judgeships are first appointed to the bench by the Governor. Yet, each Oregon state judge must face the voters, and to earn the right to wear the robe.

Judges aren’t identified by political party and serve six year terms. Their salary can’t be cut by politicians, giving them more independence from the political process.

Oregon is one of forty states that trust the voters to elect their judges. From 1853, when Tillamook County was established by the Territorial Legislature, we’ve elected the Justice of the Peace. Since statehood in 1859, we’ve elected Circuit Court judges and the judges of our appellate courts.

As the interpreters of the law, and the arbitrators of our society’s most controversial issues, judges interpret and apply the law, and exercise a great deal of discretion. Hopefully, the law allows judges to be wise and do the right thing on difficult cases. Our country values the rule of law, and we call upon our judges to be good students of the law, committed to fairness and justice.

As the third branch of government, as the “leveler” of the power of the police and the Legislature, so that government carries out its duties based on the rule of law, judges have a vital role in our system of government, and the protection of our liberties.

Democracy and elections aren’t neat and tidy. There is conflict, often heated discussions, in the public forum, and with our friends and family. Yet, in the election process, candidates are required to demonstrate their knowledge and their talents for running the government, and to earn the privilege of holding public office.

Being elected by the people gives a judge the independence and the privilege of carrying out their work, mindful of the Constitution, and mindful of the trust that the people have placed in them to know the law, to carry out the law, and to do their work in ensuring justice. An elected judge is equal to the elected legislator, the elected Governor, and the elected officials in local government.

Judge David Brewer, an Oregon Court of Appeals judge, who is running for the Oregon Supreme Court, puts it this way: “It is easy to get comfortable. You go to court, write your opinions, go home and pet the cat. Elections force us to get out there and be humbled, and that is a good thing.”

When I’ve put my name on the ballot, I’ve had to explain to people why I want the job, why I think I can do the job, and why I should get their vote. I learn about their concerns, about their views of our justice system, and what they expect from me in how I’d do the job. Voters ask tough questions and they demand excellence in the folks they elect to office. In my work, it’s often easy to forget that. Running in an election brings me back to the realities of the community, and makes me a better judge.

Who we decide should make the legal decisions that affect our lives and our community is a serious decision. And, I think the voters take that job very seriously.

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