Voters were overwhelmed: What to do about judicial elections

December 14, 2020 5:30 am

A 2020 Clark County sample ballot included a two-page spread of races for judge.

Our recent election was unique in many ways, one of which was the high number of judicial candidates. This was the first election cycle under a new rule to run all district court positions simultaneously to ensure the district judges are paid equitably, but this fix created a burden on voters. As a League of Women Voters president, I hosted Judicial Candidates Open Houses via Zoom each Friday evening between the end of August and the end of October to help voters feel more empowered. During each meeting we discussed judicial processes and the roles of different types of judges.

As the election wound down, we also discussed the judicial election process, both pros and cons.  While all enjoyed meeting with community members, even virtually, there was dissatisfaction with some aspects of the experience.

Candidates were uncomfortable raising campaign funds. Each of us assumes we will never be in court, but because almost every aspect of life includes some type of legal process, every campaign contributor could be a future plaintiff or defendant. But I heard that the real problem with campaign contributions is the appearance of a conflict of interest when a law firm, corporation, attorney, or wealthy individual contributes to a potential judge who could hear cases related to the contributor’s vested interests.

The endorsement process elicited the most distressed responses when we discussed cons.  Based on what I heard, some groups and organizations managed endorsement and evaluation processes transparently, while others were opaque and lacked justifications for endorsements. At this point, we also discussed candidates who lacked an opponent and so did not engage in voter outreach. Some wondered, if voters prefer electing over appointing judges, how the high number of unopposed races facilitated voters vetting those candidates.

When looking for fixes, we must be mindful that Nevada voters have repeatedly rejected moving to even an appointment/retention vote judicial selection process, arguing with their voices and votes that community members should vet judicial candidates directly through elections. This fact along with many voters voting to put more women and candidates from the public defenders’ office on the bench made Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson’s recent public call to move to an appointment/retention vote process for putting judges on the bench seem out of touch at best.

Under the circumstances, to cast doubt on the election outcomes made the District Attorney’s motives appear to be a negative reaction to women and/or public defenders winning. This narrative now makes it harder to develop reforms to help voters not feel so overwhelmed. Voters, who were more likely to contact me for help evaluating the judicial candidates than any other office, deserve some relief.

Most voters have methods for casting votes for candidates in other races based on one or two variables, but, because judicial candidates run as nonpartisan, for good reason, the usual R and D marker next to the candidates’ names is missing. So, voters must look for additional assistance. Voter guides and endorsement sheets, therefore, take on more importance in these races. This was certainly the case this year with so many candidates on the ballot, yet, as I previously mentioned, those resources were uneven in quality.

We need a forum for vetting possible changes to our judicial election system that will maintain voting for candidates, are fair to all candidates, and that will assist voters.  Reliable sources of information about all judicial candidates regardless of whether a race draws more than one applicant must be available.

Nevada has a commission that vets candidates for appointment to the bench when a seat opens in-between elections, so would this body be suitable for also compiling a profile for each candidate before the primary election? Or could we create a judicial evaluation board that evaluates sitting judges and then have a review commission that develops profiles for candidates challenging an incumbent? Are there options that do not require a law or a constitutional amendment? If yes, who should spearhead those changes?

Some are asking to allow judicial candidates to run as partisans, but do we really want to inject more partisan rancor into an election process? Unlike other candidates, judicial candidates do not run on a platform or a predetermined set of issues. Judicial candidates are suitable or not based on their knowledge of the law and judicial procedures, so putting a D or R next to a name would provide no indication of these qualifications.

Voter guides and endorsement processes could include more information about how the courts work but relying on private organizations to provide a needed public service could easily lead to hit and miss solutions. One election cycle could include sufficient sound information about the courts, but then the next cycle could be a bust.

What is clear for me, however, is that we need one or more solutions to help voters not feel so overwhelmed.

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Sondra Cosgrove
Sondra Cosgrove

Sondra Cosgrove is the executive director of Vote Nevada and a history professor at the College of Southern Nevada.