Ex-justice seeks end to partisan court races
Skyrocketing costs behind Ingram effort
By M.J. Ellington
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MONTGOMERY — Skyrocketing costs to run for the state’s top court seat are part of the reason one former Alabama Supreme Court justice wants a better way to select judges.
Kenneth F. Ingram, former associate justice of the state’s high court, said when a state has the most expensive court race in the country, as Alabama’s chief justice race was in 2006, maybe voters will wake up to the non-financial costs of such races.
Those include a growing public belief that judges can be bought and a perception that it is hard for the average person to get a fair trial.
Neither perception is correct in most instances, Ingram said he believes.
But he said the expense of judicial races and today’s negative campaign tactics taint a system set up to be impartial and render decisions that reflect the law, not personal or political party opinion.
“I just believe something has to give on this,” Ingram said. “The amount is just unreal,” he said of the costs of the state’s judicial races.
Yearly political campaign finance reports released at the end of January confirmed what election-expense trackers already knew. The $7.3 million that contributors gave to new Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb, a Democrat, and former Chief Justice Drayton Nabers, her Republican opponent, made the race the most expensive court contest in the country last year. Nabers received the most contributions in his bid to retain his seat when primary contributions are counted.
The figure does not include third-party sources that conducted campaigns to sway voter opinion toward a particular candidate.
Ingram said Alabama should pick appeals court judges through nonpartisan selection, and establish minimum qualifications based on the needs of the judgeship at different court levels. He said nonpartisan elections and a law that limits the amount of money for each judicial candidate could help.
“If you had qualifications for judges and you had nonpartisan elections, the public would always be the winner,” Ingram said. “People in the state want to elect their judges. If they understood they were still in the process, I believe they would accept it.”
At upper levels of the state court system, Ingram said, qualifications and experience become even more important because there is no jury.
Ingram served six years on the Supreme Court, four years on the Civil Court of Appeals and almost 20 years as a circuit court judge serving Clay, Coosa and Shelby counties.
“At the trial level, it is very easy to see things from a plaintiff point of view or a defendant point of view,” Ingram said. “But when you get to the Supreme Court, the buck stops right there.”
The state’s new chief justice called for judicial election reform before the general election and she advocates nonpartisan elections. Cobb said the high cost of campaigns and the public’s increasing questions about the ethics of the court system are the chief reasons.
Retired Chief Justice Gorman Houston, a Republican, heads an Alabama State Bar group working to develop such a plan. He first supported nonpartisan elections in 1988.
State bar Executive Director Keith Norman said there is some momentum for changing the way the state chooses its judges. He believes a bill to change the selection process will be introduced in the Legislature, but stressed the need for wide support beforehand.
“There is some momentum for it, but there is also dichotomy on the part of voters,” Norman said. “They decry dirty politics, but voters want to elect their judges. The big challenge will be to help voters see they would have a choice with a vote to retain or reject a judge.”
Norman called Ingram “the crucible of elective politics,” citing Ingram’s 1996 Supreme Court re-election campaign against Republican Harold See as “one of the most odious races in history.”
See won the race, but not before political consultants took control of the campaigns with “skunk ads” and middle-of-the-night delivery of anonymous fliers to voters’ homes that changed the course of the election.
That type of campaign is inappropriate in a judicial race,” Norman said. “They are supposed to be impartial. To make them political thwarts objectivity.”
The Bar wants a merit system in which a committee recommends qualified candidates to the governor, who would make the choice.
Cobb wants a combination of merit appointment to fill vacancies and nonpartisan elections when appointments expire.
The proposal is a hybrid of the merit-only selection process used in some states and the nonpartisan elections in others.
Nabers said he is comfortable with the state’s current system and believes the state has fine courts elected with the current system.
During the campaign, Skip Tucker, executive director of the conservative group Alabama Voters Against Lawsuit Abuse, charged that trial lawyers funded Cobb’s campaign. Her campaign countered with accusations about Nabers’ ties to big business and insurance companies.
Only seven other states have partisan elections for top court races: Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and West Virginia.
Attempts at nonpartisan judicial elections
MONTGOMERY — Interest in nonpartisan election of judges is not new and has links to Decatur that date to 1952.
The late John Caddell, a Decatur attorney who was president of the Alabama State Bar in 1952, tried but did not get legislation requiring nonpartisan election of judges that year. Democrats did not like the idea, but the few Republicans he knew were receptive.
The late U.S. senator and former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice, Howell Heflin, a Democrat, had nonpartisan elections included in the state judicial article introduced before the Legislature during his 1971-77 term as chief justice. The Legislature deleted the measure.
The Alabama State Bar Board of Bar Commissioners went on record years ago favoring merit selection of judges.
Rep. Paul DeMarco, R-Homewood, introduced a bill to establish nonpartisan election of judges last year. The bill died in legislative committee.
More Democrats than Republicans favor nonpartisan judges’ elections. Twenty years ago, the reverse was true.
Historically the political party with the most power at the moment dislikes nonpartisan judicial elections more than the party with less power.
SOURCES: Alabama State Bar Executive Director Keith Norman, Justice at Stake, Alabama Department of Archives and History
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