A few weeks ago, I filled out my absentee ballot at the Madison County Courthouse. On the ballot was a race for Mississippi Supreme Court justice. In the weeks since then, I have noticed quite a bit of campaigning for that race.
The more that I think about this race, the more it concerns me. For starters, the incumbent, Bill Waller Jr., is the chief justice of Mississippi. This means it is possible for Mississippi’s top state judge to lose his seat this November.
Federally, as well as in the majority of states, judges are appointed to tenure in order to free them from backlash from voters for an unfavorable opinion. For instance, if a justice today ruled that under the U.S. Constitution segregation is lawful, he or she would likely be voted out of office, even if his or her opinion was founded in the Constitution, because segregation is unfavorable today.
Some might argue that any justice who would approve segregation today should be removed from office, but that defeats the whole purpose of the judicial branch.
However, most judicial races do not revolve around a single topic issue. In fact, most constituents are not even aware of judicial races until they get to the ballot.
Do we really want a position as important as Mississippi Supreme Court justice to be decided by voters unaware of the race and the candidates involved?
Additionally, candidates for a judge position in Mississippi have to raise money in order to campaign for the position. This means that candidates could potentially be receiving campaign funds from citizens who might appear before them or one of their colleagues in court.
In his bestselling book “The Appeal,” John Grisham tells the story of a company that manipulated the Mississippi judicial elections. After it lost a big trial in Mississippi courts, it backed a candidate for the Mississippi Supreme Court who would reverse the decision from the lower court. Aside from the eloquent storytelling, the fact remains that the plot of the story is not impossible.
Mississippi needs to reconsider the way that judges are placed in office. The constitutionality of laws and practices of Mississippi is far too important to be politicized.
However, there is an argument that appointing judges is even more politically messy than electing them, since appointments could be based on political favors rather than qualifications.
Due to checks and balances, any politically motivated appointment would likely not be approved by the Mississippi Legislature when there is a lack of qualifications.
Rarely do I advocate more government autonomy from the voters, but this case is an exception. After all, the judicial branch is the ultimate form of checks and balances in the government, not the voters, when it comes to issues of constitutionality.
Trenton Winford is a junior public policy leadership major from Madison.