Although I have not been a big fan of publicly-financed elections, I have come to believe that public financing would work well in contested judicial races.
Judges are not politicians and they should certainly not be. The problem is that a contested election for a district or appellate court position costs money and raising money to finance such an election looks unseemly.
Judicial candidates are prohibited from personally asking for campaign contributions. So, they must ask others to shake the bushes for campaign money on their behalf. Even though the candidate is somewhat removed from the fund-raising activity, it just does not look good. It gives the appearance of justice being for sale.
In my 12 years on the Supreme Court, I saw no hint of any decision of any Idaho court having been influenced by a campaign contribution. However, we are dealing with public perception of the impartiality of the judiciary. If people see fund-raisers hustling on behalf of persons who want to be judges, it tends to diminish confidence in the judicial system. Public financing could help shore up public confidence in the judiciary.
Public financing would not be that costly for taxpayers. Although election contests have become more common in recent years for Supreme Court positions, there has been only one contest every other year for that court since the turn of the century. I cannot recall an election contest for the Court of Appeals. If public financing were to cover district court races, there would be an average of 3-4 contests in each four-year election cycle (an average of one per year).
A cost of $150,000 per candidate for Supreme Court elections and $50,000 per candidate for district court would be in the general ballpark. That would mean legislative funding of about $300,000 every two years for the Supreme Court and $400,000 every four years for district court races.
Public financing could be limited to candidates who commit to forego any other source of financial support and who are interviewed by the Idaho Judicial Council and receive a rating of “qualified” or better. The Judicial Council does an outstanding job of evaluating candidates and is in a position to determine those who possess the qualifications for a judicial position. Public funds would not be available to those determined by the council to be unqualified.
Public confidence in the justice system would be enhanced by relieving candidates of the drudgery and indignity of fund raising. There does appear to be public support for the concept. In a citizen survey conducted in 2002 by Rachel Vanderpool Burdick, 60% of voters who responded said they would support public financing of judicial elections. West Virginia and New Mexico have had good success with public financing and perhaps the time has come for Idaho to give it a try.
Jim Jones is a former Idaho Supreme Court chief justice and a former Idaho attorney general.