Last week I reported on Judge Gary Lee’s decision to seek a fourth term as North Central District Court judge. The conversation I had with Judge Lee got me thinking: why do so many of our district court judges run unopposed?
Now, please hear me: I’m not in any way writing against Judge Lee. In fact, his candid and thoughtful responses to my interview questions spurred my thinking in this direction more than anything else.
Why do we see so many judges running unopposed in elections? And it’s not just unopposed. In elections for seats on the North Dakota Supreme Court, how much have you ever heard about the various candidates you’re supposed to choose from?
Regarding the district court judgeships, it may not be too difficult to reason this out.
Running for judge is not at all the same thing as running for the state legislature. More than any other political position, a seat in the legislature is meant for the average citizen who wants to serve the public for a time, wants to preserve peace and prosperity for the average resident in the state, and then wants to get back to his or her own life. Legislators can (and sometimes do) come from all walks of life. With the renewed grassroots sentiment in North Dakota, we are seeing more and more examples of the citizen legislator every election.
But judgeships are different. You can’t take the average citizen off the street and put him in a judgeship without a law degree and a without a good amount of successful experience with the law. Regardless of how good a leader you are or how skilled in any other way, factors that likely help within the legislature, the lack of credentials and experience in the law effectively prevents you from being a competent judge. So the nature of the position itself eliminates a majority of people from running.
But what about all the rest of the attorneys out there? Why don’t more of them run? First off, a large number of attorneys rarely if ever see the inside of a courtroom. Experience with litigation and trial law is another strong prerequisite. So that reduces the pool of available candidates even further.
The next easiest answer could be money. As a judge, your income has a ceiling that other practicing attorneys don’t have. Time and lifestyle may also be factors. Depending on your law practice and how successful you have been, you may have the ability to dictate what clients you choose to represent, when, as a judge, you mostly don’t have the opportunity to choose what cases you will or won’t hear.
Also, most of the judges I have known live an extremely secluded lifestyle once becoming a judge, for somewhat obvious reasons. I assume that many attorneys would prefer not to live such a reclusive lifestyle, so that aspect eliminates even more candidates.
Additionally, the prospect of campaigning probably plays into this decision as well. The kind of personality who prefers to research and apply the law to help settle differences between parties (as Judge Lee described his motivation) may not be the type of personality that thrives on campaigning. And if an attorney wants to campaign for public office, why not campaign for what many might consider more prestigious positions in the legislative or executive branches?
Finally, one might also consider the position an attorney might face if he or she chose to run against a sitting judge, rather than merely sought an open seat when another judge decided to retire. If the challenger were to lose a contested election against a sitting judge, after all the necessary campaigning that would include why he would be a better judge than the incumbent, he would still have to regularly appear before that incumbent judge in the course of day-to-day work. In many cases, that may not be any big deal, but for some personalities (on either side), that situation might not work well.
All these potential reasons explain pretty well why we see so many district court judges run unopposed. And perhaps most of the judges we have are fantastic judges. But if those positions are going to be elected by the people, I still have to believe that if citizens had more choices, and they were able to be informed about their choices, the result would work better for our society in the long run.
At the very least, we ought to demand much more information about the judges who run for seats on the North Dakota Supreme Court. If we are going to elect these people, then we deserve to know more about the way they interpret the law, and about the way they’ve ruled in previous cases.