Monday, December 17, 2007

Merit Selection of Judges - It's Time...

Chip Wagar, President of LOJE, was published in the Times Picayune for his editorial on merit selection in Louisiana. The full article and direct link is below. What do you think about merit selection in Louisiana? Is it time?

Merit selection of judges: It's time
Monday, December 10, 2007
Chip Wagar
As Louisiana emerges from the ravages of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, the opportunity presents itself for a fresh beginning. One thing we should be eager to leave behind is the commonly held perception of corruption of state government that is felt both within and outside the state. Gov.-elect Bobby Jindal has promised to put legislative ethics reform at the top of his agenda, but he must not forget the pressing issue of judicial ethics reform.
Corruption of the judicial branch by individuals or groups seeking preferential treatment has proved to be inevitable in Louisiana due to the impact of money and politics on elected judges. Furthermore, the impact of monetary contributions to the judiciary is obscured to the average citizen by the pretense that campaign contributions are not made to the judges themselves but to their "campaigns."
Perception, when it comes to public confidence, is reality. The perception of Louisiana's judiciary is hardly an inspiring one. For the past several years, Louisianians have watched the seemingly endless series of revelations arising out of the Wrinkled Robe scandals in Jefferson Parish and the convictions of several judges for corruption in both Orleans and Jefferson parishes. The recent guilty plea and conviction of Judge C. Hunter King, who bullied and pressured his staff to raise money for his election, is particularly relevant. The recent conviction of Judge Alan Green, videotaped by the FBI shaking down a local lawyer for campaign contributions, along with other sitting judges, may have reduced public confidence to new lows.

The view of Louisianians about their own judicial system is echoed in the country as a whole. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce ranked Louisiana 50th in judge's impartiality, 49th in judge's competence and 48th in overall ranking. It is hard to deny that anyone other than those within the judiciary itself think much of Louisiana's third branch of government.
Corruption is not just about illegality. Corruption is also about bending the will of an elected judge to elevate a contributor's personal interest or employment security. Corruption is about the impact that money has on a judge who has received it from one side in a case but not the other, whether it be from the litigants themselves or their lawyer. Financial contributions to judges from lawyers or litigants open the door to legitimate questions regarding how impartial a judge can be.
Judges regularly and directly solicit virtually every lawyer in the district or circuit to join their "finance committee," whose numbers often run into the hundreds. Letters from the "finance committee" contain what must be the largest letterheads known to American correspondence, because the names of dozens or even hundreds of lawyers are contained on the first page surrounding yet another appeal to more lawyers or others to donate to the judge's campaign.
It would simply be impossible to believe that elected judges do not know who has volunteered to run their campaigns, solicit and raise campaign money and contribute money. It is also impossible to believe that a judge doesn't know who has given money to his campaign. Yet the judiciary persists in hiding behind the fig leaf of these claims whenever the corruption issue is raised.
Simply electing better people to be judges is not the answer. It is the system that is rotten and should go. It is time to select judges based on merit, not in popular elections. When your house is destroyed by a hurricane, you do not rebuild it with all the flaws and imperfections of the old house. So it should be with Louisiana.
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Chip Wagar is a practicing attorney in New Orleans, and is managing partner of the firm Chopin, Wagar, Richard & Kutcher, LLP. He is president of the Louisiana Organization for Judicial Excellence, a non-partisan organization promoting judicial reform and merit selection of judges. He can be contacted at