Former Montana Supreme Court Justice James Nelson will speak in Tempe, Ariz., on Wednesday October 22 on the topic of Citizens United and the influence of money in judicial elections.

Former Montana Supreme Court Justice James Nelson will speak in Tempe, Ariz., on Wednesday October 22, on the topic of Citizens United and the influence of money in judicial elections.

The guest speaker at a Wednesday Tempe event will be a retired jurist who is expected to offer frank commentary about the corrosive role of campaign money in judicial elections.

Former Montana Supreme Court Justice James Nelson will offer remarks about the Citizens United ruling—and especially the impact of money on the election of judges—at a mixer hosted by the Arizona Advocacy Network.

As the AAN says, “Learn how to keep Arizona’s judicial system protected from political attacks. Increasingly special interests groups and big money are targeting the courts for their own gain.”

Former Justice Nelson is just as likely to offer a rousing dialogue on a variety of issues. His judicial contributions have sometimes been controversial, outspoken and noteworthy. (You can read more about Justice Nelson here and here.)

The October 22 event, co-hosted by the ASU Indian Legal Program, takes place at the Old Main on the ASU campus, 400 E. Taylor Mall, Tempe (parking is available in the Fulton Center parking garage across University Ave.).

The event is free, but RSVP is required. Register here.

electionsToday, I share some information from the State Bar of Arizona. They have devised a smart and witty way to remind you about ALL the races that can be found on our ballots, and the vital importance of completing that ballot all the way to the end. Here you go:

The November election is just weeks away and soon your friends and family will be asking you the same question they ask every election: How should they vote the judges on the ballot? We want to help, so this election we’ve come up with a way for you to answer that question.

Watch our Finish the Ballot video below:

That’s it.

Send them the Youtube link and the two-minute cartoon will answer their questions. It explains why we vote for judges, and where to find the information to make that vote.


In fact, it’s something you should send to all your friends whether they ask or not (hey, maybe even you should watch it). Retention elections are an important part of the merit selection process. The more you help you friends and family understand the process, the better it works.

We also have a fun way to promote our Finish the Ballot campaign. Click here to read more about a chance to win $250 in our Instagram “Finish the Ballot” contest. (The page even includes a sample video.)

finish_the_ballot_instagram contest header

Jurists from a federal circuit court and state supreme courts spoke at the Goldwater Institute, Oct. 25, 2013.

Jurists from a federal circuit court and state supreme courts spoke at the Goldwater Institute, Oct. 25, 2013.

I sometimes hear from folks, “Let’s just elect all the judges.”

Or there’s this one: “I don’t want anyone to take away my right to elect judges.”

Understand, these are not people in small communities, where you could argue everyone knows each other, and judicial candidates are recognized—by name, by face, and by personal experience.

No, I’ve heard this sentiment expressed by lawyers in major metropolitan areas. And when I hear it, I always wonder if I’m missing something.

After all, in every election cycle, the most common question every lawyer hears from friends and neighbors is, “Which judges should I vote for on my ballot? Who should I vote to retain? I don’t know any of these people.”

The easy answer is, “Head over to the Judicial Performance Review website, where there’s information about all the judges up for retention.” The harder answer is, why don’t you remember I said that last year and every year you’ve asked me?

So much for yearning to vote for judges.

I’ve written a little about judicial elections this week, and I promised you some insight from a Texas judge today.

You know Texas, don’t you? That’s the place, among others, when jaw-dropping stories about judge campaigning make national news.

At an October 25 Goldwater Institute event, one Texas Supreme Court Justice, Don Willett, offered some unscripted remarks about what it’s like to run for office. Those who hunger to vote for their judges—and lawyers considering throwing their hat into the judge-ballot ring—should take heed.

The event’s topic was constitutional judging. The conversation ranged among the varied opinions on how we define “activist” judges or those who “legislate from the bench.” It’s a hot-button topic and one that often yields more heat than light. In that milieu, the speakers did very well.

(Credit goes to organizer and moderator Nick Dranias of the Institute; Fifth Circuit Senior Judge Harold DeMoss, Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Barry Anderson, California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu, and Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett. I tweeted quite a bit from the event here.)

As often happens, an invigorating exchange occurred after the panel discussion was complete. That arose when an audience member asked the elected judges on the panel, “How much does it cost you to run for office? And how do you remain impartial in your rulings when your contributors include lawyers and litigants?”

Boom. Now there are some questions.

I have attended enough lawyer-and-judge events that I expected some vague reassurances in response to those hard questions. But what the audience got was much more candid and unvarnished.

Justice Don Willett, Texas Supreme Court, speaks at the Goldwater Institute, Oct. 25, 2013.

Justice Don Willett, Texas Supreme Court, speaks at the Goldwater Institute, Oct. 25, 2013.

Justice Willett spoke first. When he was sworn into office, he said, “the moment my hand came off the Bible, it rotated 180 degrees to become an open palm,” so that he was ready to solicit campaign funds. He illustrated his point by holding his right hand flat and parallel to the floor, and then rotating it to be flat and parallel with the ceiling.

Texas is not Rhode Island, he reminded the audience. It has 254 counties and two time zones. One week of statewide TV times costs $2 million. And where does that money come from? Judges raise it from among lawyers and others.

Justice Willett was frank about what it’s like to “beg strangers for obscene amounts of cash.” It’s “unseemly” and “vile.”

The “name of the game,” he said, is to “amass a colossal war chest to bombard voters.”

To be fair, Justice Willett said that he appreciates the attempt at judicial accountability. But what citizens get is “a real electoral crapshoot.”

In his remarks, Justice Willett added something that would give succor to those who prefer judicial elections. He said that in merit-selection systems, we still must scrutinize “who picks the pickers.” He said that JPR systems overall favor “big-firm, Bar-friendly folks.”

(I’m not sure that conclusion is correct. It might be helpful for JPR advocates to explore that question. If it’s a myth, they should address it. And if it’s true, they should explore why it is.)

Minnesota’s Justice Anderson also replied to the audience question (in a milder, Minnesota-like way).

“The judiciary is uniquely susceptible to damage from the fundraising and campaign problem. Even if you posit that there is no effect on impartiality, the public and attorneys’ clients don’t understand that.”

Fair and impartial,” he continued, “is something that benefits all of us.”

goldwater-institute signJustice Anderson concluded, “If you’re in the camp that says you don’t want to give up your ‘right’ to elect judges, you should rethink that.”

Before heading into the weekend, I’ll end with Justice Willett, on what it takes to prepare for the campaign season:

Despite his own misgivings about judicial campaigning, he knows that “when it’s time to campaign, you buckle your chin strap, put on your game face … and raise money.”

Follow Justice Willett’s most excellent tweets here.

Have a great—and impartial—weekend.

Sandra Day O'Connor urges legislative restraint at a Morrison Institute panel on merit selection of judges, Feb. 22, 2011.

Today, the Arizona Republic published an editorial that echoes what Chief Justice Rebecca White Berch has told the Legislature about the judicial merit-selection system: It’s not broken, so why are you tinkering with it?

(The same message has been made by others, including retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, at a panel discussion we covered here.)

More specifically, the editorial offered a defense of the State Bar’s role in that process. As it points out, the Bar does not select judges in the state. But it plays a role in selecting lawyers to sit on judicial nominating commissions—where those lawyers sit as a minority alongside members of the public.

Recommendations arising from those commissions then go to the governor, who selects judges to sit on the Arizona Supreme Court, Courts of Appeal, and Superior Courts in Maricopa and Pima counties.

Despite an unfortunate typo, I’m sure the State Bar leadership appreciates the Republic’s touting State Bar involvement, which “ensures the commissions will include lawyers deemed competent by fallow lawyers.”

(Fallow, of course, can mean “undeveloped or inactive, but potentially useful.” For the record, those are not the kinds of lawyers the Bar strives to appoint.)

Read the complete editorial here.