The pros and cons of electing judges could be seen at a GOP candidate forum last week, as there was some substantive debate about qualifications and work history, but also political pandering and partisan questioning.
The Wichita Pachyderm Club forum featured candidates in three Republican primary races for Sedgwick County District Court. The candidates began with brief introductions – mostly about their legal background, though sprinkled with comments extolling “the blessings of liberty” and the “Republican way of life.”
Candidate Linda Kirby also opened by accusing incumbent Phil Journey of failing to do an adequate job as judge. Journey responded later by arguing that Kirby lacks experience to be a judge.
Those exchanges, though a bit rough at times, focused on candidates’ qualifications and job performance, which can be useful to voters. The questions from some club members weren’t as relevant.
After an odd question about replacing the flags in courtrooms because they are lined with fringe, the candidates were asked about their GOP credentials. They variously responded by noting how they either were lifelong Republicans or had returned to the GOP after flirting briefly with “the dark side” while in college.
Another questioner asked if the candidates were 100 percent pro-life. All of the candidates bent over backward to say that they were. Only Journey cautioned that District Court judges are constrained by the law and higher court rulings.
The Pachyderm Club deserves credit for hosting the forum, and it is natural that its members would be concerned about GOP priorities. But the event showed how difficult it can be to evaluate and question judicial candidates and how easy it is to drift toward partisan or special-interest concerns.
The forum also showed how candidates pander to those concerns, even though judges are supposed to rule based on the law, not their personal beliefs.
Forums are a good way to meet candidates and get some background on their qualifications. But a better way to evaluate judicial candidates is to ask other attorneys about them. What are their reputations? Do they know the law and apply it fairly and consistently? What kind of temperament would they bring to the bench?
The Eagle and the Wichita Bar Association also conducted a survey that asked local attorneys to evaluate sitting judges and judicial candidates. It will be published later this month.
The good thing about electing judges is that it engages the public in selecting those who serve in a branch of government that can have a profound impact on their lives. But that doesn’t work well if voters don’t have a good way to evaluate candidates.
It also should be noted that five of the six contested judicial races in Sedgwick County will be decided in the GOP primary. That means a minority of voters will decide who joins the bench, which isn’t very democratic.
For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee