This November, Nevada voters will determine how our state’s district and Supreme Court judges are selected. Question 1 on the ballot will adopt a judicial merit selection and retention process. Based upon my years of experience in the justice system of New York, I strongly believe that Nevada’s future economic and social well being will be improved by the approval of Question 1.
As the Chief Administrator (CEO) of New York State’s court system and its 3,500 judges, I saw both merit selection and the election of judges up close. While both systems are capable of producing qualified judges, merit selection is more certain to do so. Two thirds of the states have already adopted some form of the merit selection-retention election model; nine states have adopted a process similar to what is before Nevada voters in November.
Merit selection and retention is a process for selecting judges based solely on experience and qualifications. It effectively eliminates expensive and highly politicized campaigning by judges. Under the proposed system, a Judicial Selection Commission – an independent, nonpartisan group of Nevada citizens – will screen district and Supreme Court judicial applicants and recommend only the most qualified candidates to the governor, who will then appoint one of the candidates. The process will be open to the public, allowing citizens to submit comments about applicants and speak at public hearings where candidates are interviewed.
Within the first two years following their appointment, justices and judges would undergo a rigorous performance evaluation and then stand for retention. If retained by the voters, justices and judges would have to go through the same evaluation and retention process for each subsequent election. Every judge’s performance is thoroughly evaluated by a committee made up of people who use the courts. The results of the review would be made public and Nevada voters would have the final say. To stay in office, judges must receive at least 55 percent of the vote.
Opponents of merit selection argue that it would take away from the people their ability to elect their judicial representatives. There is one problem with that argument – judges are not supposed to be representatives, they’re supposed to be impartial.
The vast majority of judges, appointed or elected, behave professionally, and my argument in favor of impartiality is not meant to suggest otherwise. But, it is crucially important that the system of selecting judges constantly increase the chances that professional behavior will characterize everything that every judge does. That means that partisan politics, campaign fund raising, and patronage should have no part in the system.
Judicial independence and impartiality are very important to all of us. There also are economic consequences to the system of selecting judges. Businesses need a judicial system that is both highly professional and consistently impartial. Companies come to know when judges understand the complexities of commercial law, and make decisions without regard to political preferences. Entire state judicial systems develop a reputation for the fairness and professionalism with which they handle commercial cases. Having that kind of reputation will be important to Nevada’s economic diversification.
Nevadans for Qualified Judges is spearheading the campaign for the passage of Question 1 and is led by retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor as honorary chairwoman; retired Nevada Supreme Court Justice William Maupin as chair; and State Senator William Raggio and developer Irwin Molasky as vice chairmen.
I urge all Nevadans to vote in favor of Question 1 on Election Day.