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Cobb: No parties in justice
Incoming Alabama chief justice seeks non-partisan races

By M.J. Ellington· (334) 262-1104

MONTGOMERY — Take $4.3 million here, another $1.6 million there, add them up and you’ll have one expensive 2006 race for chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court.

Alabama’s highest court race in 2006 drew national attention because of its cost, expected to end up as the most expensive state judicial race in the country. Experts blame Alabama’s partisan judicial elections and lack of caps on political contributions by individuals and political action committees.

“If this is not a call for nonpartisan elections, I don’t know what is,” said incoming Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb. In Alabama’s 2006 state chief justice race, Drayton Nabers, the Republican, was high spender, and Cobb, the Democrat, was the winner.

Historically, Cobb said, partisan races cost more because parties contribute more to candidates running under their banner.

Voters identify partisan judicial candidates with party positions,

something that Cobb said should not be a factor when a judge gets to the bench.

While the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that judicial candidates could state their own political beliefs during campaigns, Cobb said once a judge is on the bench, personal opinions should not matter.

“If you announce your position as a candidate, voters are thinking they will vote that way because you will decide cases that way in court. That is not the case or should not be.” said Cobb, who served 25 years as a judge in state district and appellate courts.

“Judges should make decisions based on law,” she added.

Cobb, 50, said as the only Democrat on the state criminal appeals court during the past six years, she and her Republican colleagues worked together on decisions based on law and the canons, or rules, of judicial ethics.

“It is a violation of the canons of judicial ethics not to do so,” she said.

Changing elections

Former Chief Justice Gorman Houston, a member of the Alabama State Bar group studying court elections, said he supported nonpartisan elections beginning in 1988. Judges and bar association members widely support some change in the way the state elects its judges, he added.

“Generally, you have the businesses on one side and the trial lawyers on one side,” said Houston, who ran as a Democrat in most of his races but as a Republican the last race.

“I really and truly think what we are working toward is a level playing field. I definitely think something needs to be done about judges elections on an appellate court level.”

Cobb proposes that Alabama choose its judges using a combination of merit appointment to fill vacancies and nonpartisan elections when the seats are up for regular election.

The proposal is a hybrid of the pure merit selection process in use in some states and the nonpartisan elections used by some others. Alabama is one of seven states with partisan elections.

Cobb’s proposal

In Cobb’s proposal, appointees chosen by a merit selection system that establishes credentials would fill vacancies that occur when a judge leaves the bench before the end of a term.

Appointed judges interested in election to their seats would run in a nonpartisan election for a full term.

Several metropolitan areas, including Birmingham, use a merit appointment system for vacancies now, said Cobb who was first an appointed and then an elected judge.

Groups including the Alabama State Bar Association, state judges and others are seeking a plan they can all agree on and present to the Legislature.

For now the groups are only in the discussion stage, Cobb said.

Cobb concedes that Alabama is not likely to stop political party influence entirely, especially from third party or 529 groups organized to distribute political contributions.

But she thinks a nonpartisan system would be a move in the right direction.

Judicial elections in states with nonpartisan races cost less, she said.

Final costs for state elections will not be in until January when candidates file their yearly contribution and expense reports with the state.

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