Billionaire political financier George Soros is behind a $45 million campaign to strip American citizens of their right to select state court judges and thereby put the legal system in the hands of Left-wing jurists, according to Dan Pero, president of the American Justice Partnership. AJP produced a comprehensive report about the plan and Soros’ financial stake in it. AJP says the movement is using the reformist-sounding name “merit selection” for its plan and that it seeks to end the popular election of state judges and replace the decision of voters with a system that puts political insiders and lawyers themselves in charge of filtering and selecting who is appointed to the courts where they practice.
Merit selection will be the subject of a forum at Wayne State University on Tuesday. Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor will be presenting in favor of merit selection. Former Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Cliff Taylor will present in support of keeping voters directly in charge of who runs their courts.
The price of admission is $10. Those interested in attending the Judicial Selection Task Force Forum on Tuesday at 9:30 am in Detroit should contact the League of Women Voters.
Justice Taylor points to Missouri as the birthplace of merit selection and a classic example of its dangers. He notes that the Missouri Appellate Judicial Nominating Commission – though in theory “non-partisan” – has trial lawyers representing three of its seven seats and other special interests locking up others. The commission alone has the power to submit Missouri Supreme Court candidates to the state’s governor. If the governor does not select one of the three candidates offered up by the commission, Taylor says the power to select a judge reverts to the chair of the commission itself.
Taylor argues that this effectively guts the power of the citizens – through their elected governor – to challenge the authority of the commission and guide the direction of the courts. He points to the recent case of Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt who won election in 2007 on the basis of a promise to put the brakes on a runaway judiciary. Afterward, the commission sent him what Taylor calls three “business as usual” options to choose from for a Missouri Supreme Court vacancy, knowing that the chair of the commission would get to select one of the “bad choices” if the governor did not.
“When the cry went up that this was just politics masquerading as merit selection,” said Taylor in a Sept. 2009 speech, “the panelists denied it and scolded the critics by informing them that they were just, well, doing their best and picking on merit.”
Arizona, the home of Justice O’Connor, has a similar system, using a bi-partisan panel. The Hill newsletter’s blog explains how it works:
“In Arizona, merit selection is a way of choosing judges that uses nonpartisan commissions to investigate and evaluate applicants for judgeships. Each commission is composed of 10 public members and five attorney members, and is chaired by the chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court. After two years of judicial service, those judges nominated by the commission and appointed by the governor are evaluated by the voters in a retention election.”
Merit selection is mostly an inversion of the federal system for appointing judges, wherein the President nominates a candidate which the Senate may either confirm or reject. Neither the President nor Congress has the power to force a decision on the other, meaning judgeships from U.S. District Court on up to the U.S. Supreme Court can theoretically remain vacant until the elected officials agree on an appointment.
O’Connor believes that using money and elections to pick judges at the state level is corrupting to judicial elections in a way that selecting politicians using the same method is not corrupting to legislatures, Congress, governors and the Presidency. She campaigned in favor of a failed attempt to shift the Nevada judiciary over to merit selection last year. She has told other news outlets that she finds it “shocking” that states such as Nevada and Michigan allow citizens to elect judges.
Just before it was defeated by Nevada voters, in an essay entitled “Soros Bets on Nevada,” the Wall Street Journal editorialized that the Nevada merit selection campaign was the “test drive” for the Soros effort to bring merit selection to the 20 states that do not yet have it.
“States using this so-called merit selection method have had their judicial selections manipulated by lawyers and bar associations that nominate guild favorites. In most cases this has pushed courts to the activist left,” wrote the Journal. “That's a nifty outcome for liberal groups who see the state courts as the next frontier for moving political agendas.”
Pat Wright, director of the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation, stated that while every nominating system has flaws, judicial elections give voters the most ability to shape the direction of their judiciary, which can be a useful tool when judges impose their policy preferences instead of adhering to the law.