A short while back, I offered some thoughts on relocating the state capital and rescheduling the legislative session based upon football. In a similar vein, I would like to offer a word about judicial elections.
As many of my readers doubtless are aware, Georgia's recent shift from a one-party Democratic state to a one-party Republican state has been accompanied by several noteworthy policy changes, not the least of which was the rescheduling of judicial elections.
Previously, Georgia appellate and trial court judges were chosen, along with other nonpartisan elected officials, during the primary balloting in July, when voter turnout tends to be lower. This year, even though they continue to run without declaring a party affiliation, judges will be elected in November, during the general election.
This is how we would vote if we were cartoon characters living in the 18th century without any of the benefits of modern technology.
The political wisdom of this move is open to debate. As a Georgia football fan, though, I cannot help but oppose the change. Here is why:
The state constitution does not require that a judicial candidate be a graduate of the University of Georgia, but imposing such a qualification would not dramatically alter the composition of the bench in the Peach State, as a great many Georgia jurists attended the nation's oldest state-chartered university for their baccalaureate or law degrees.
This is not to say that there are not many fine judges in this state who attended other institutions; certainly, there are. As a proud alumnus of the University of Georgia, though, I would not want to create a state of affairs under which my fellow denizens of Bulldog Nation were at a disadvantage in---or, at a minimum, were discouraged from entering---judicial elections.
Election day falls on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, which means that a candidate for elected office must spend the 10 weekends beginning with Labor Day---in other words, the first 10 Saturdays of football season---campaigning.
Is it right to force would-be candidates for the bench to choose between seeking a judgeship and being a sports fan? Do we want the most devoted Bulldog supporters in the bar effectively to be disqualified from running for such posts?
I know many fine judges who are dedicated 'Dawg fans, including one who is my mother's younger brother. I see them at Bulldog Club meetings. I notice the photographs of Uga leaping at the Auburn player hanging in their offices. In my legal career, I have been called to the bench by a judge who noted approvingly that my forthcoming leave of absence included time away from the office for the purpose of attending the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party and I have spent many a court recess talking about college football with the judge.
I, for one, do not wish to lose any of these judges---or those cut from the same cloth who will come after them---because they are forced to choose between being a judge and being a fan. While I would not vote for an otherwise unqualified candidate just because he shared my team affiliation, neither would I want capable attorneys who also happened to be Georgia football season ticket holders to shy away from the judiciary due to the timing of the election.
A lawyer ought to be able to wield a gavel on weekdays and still get the opportunity to spend six or seven Saturdays a season in Sanford Stadium.
Judges play an especially important role in our system of government. They are the human face of the rule of law, applying legislative enactments and appellate pronouncements where the rubber meets the road. While their decisions and the principles embodied in them can have far-reaching implications and applications in other cases, the trial court judge's job is to apply the law to the facts in deciding the case before him, which involves not abstract notions of public policy but actual people whose real lives will be affected by the decision being handed down.
I like the idea that the men and women who bear this awesome responsibility on a daily basis are spending their time outside the courthouse taking part in activities that keep them tethered to their community . . . the whole community, not just that part of it that passes before the bench.
I like the idea that, when they hang up their robes, judges are going to Wednesday night church suppers and civic club meetings, to trivia night at the local sports bar or the fall festival in the city park, and that they are doing these things not as candidates seeking votes, but as citizens participating in the life of the community they serve and protect, and to which they belong.
I'd rather know a judge was going to football games on Saturdays because it means he is grounded in something besides the often insular world of the law and lawyers. It means he is taking the time to enjoy life and celebrate something that matters to him rather than spending time brooding and allowing the less pleasant aspects of his job to make him jaded and cynical.
Something valuable would be lost if such attorneys were driven from the judiciary by their unwillingness to exchange sunny Saturdays in Sanford Stadium for the soul-sapping drudgery of electoral politics. While I know several good lawyers and loyal Georgia fans who have foregone their season tickets this fall in order to pursue an opportunity for public service, I fear that the available pool of candidates of this caliber will dwindle if we continue to hold judicial elections in the autumn, which is not the traditional or typical time for conducting such campaigns.
I do not know whether the interests of one party or the other are favored by holding judicial elections in November rather than in July and, frankly, I do not care; judges are nonpartisan officials and, anyway, our form of government is supposed to be about protecting particular processes rather than assuring specific outcomes.
By moving judicial elections back to the date of the July primaries---when Georgians historically have elected their jurists---we restore a time-honored tradition that has proven workable for many years and make the prospect of seeking a judgeship more appealing to attorneys whose interests run broader and deeper than the constricting concerns of mere political expediency.
There is no evidence to suggest that David Souter is a football fan, and look at what an oddball he turned out to be.
Judges are people, who need affections and outlets, interests and commitments, beyond the courthouse walls. Without these, they lack the human interaction that bolsters their humanity and the driving passion that fuels their compassion. Knowledge is informed by character, just as wisdom is tempered by empathy, and the commonweal is not served by denying to would-be jurists the opportunity to enjoy the same sorts of lives as their fellow citizens. The chasm between the bench and the populace needs narrowing, not widening.
I should hasten to add that stocking the bench with the Bulldog faithful would not operate to the detriment of those who seek justice but lack the good judgment to root for the Red and Black. Judges do not allow such factors to influence their decisions. Trust me, I know; a judge who is a die-hard 'Dawg fan (and who knows I am one, too) once ruled against me in a hearing in which the opposing attorney was the sibling of a well-known player at a rival school whose football team had beaten Georgia the year before. If that ain't integrity, I don't know what is.
The point is that judges, who are supposed to be insulated from partisan considerations to the greatest extent possible, should be participants in the life of the community---should be participants in life, period---more so than politicians.
By making judges run for election in the autumn, when those who are compelled to declare their party affiliation also are on the ballot, rather than in the summer, when such races traditionally have been decided, we pave the way for a judiciary whose members voluntarily would choose to hand out pamphlets in supermarket parking lots rather than cheer for the Bulldogs in Sanford Stadium.
A prospective judge shouldn't have to choose between wearing a black robe during the work week and wearing red and black on the weekend. A prospective judge shouldn't have to choose between hearing the peal of the courthouse clock and listening to the song of the Lone Bugler. A prospective judge shouldn't have to choose between knowing the thrill of victory on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November and feeling like a Bulldog on Saturday night.
Such choices are not good for the souls of the choosers and the goal of good governance is not served by limiting the pool of judges to those who have been forced to make such judgments badly.