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October 31, 2014

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Former Supreme Court justice lobbies for merit selection for judges

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Sam Morris

Former justice of the Arizona Supreme Court Ruth McGregor listens as retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor makes a point for having judges appointed rather than elected Tuesday, September 21, 2010, during a meeting with the editorial board of the Las Vegas Sun.

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor is used to being impartial.

But on the subject of how judges are selected, she has a strong opinion: Judges should be appointed.

"The Constitution has been a great document in our country, and it does not allow for elected judges," O'Connor said today during an editorial board meeting at the Sun.

O'Connor is touring the nation this week talking to policymakers, media and the public about the merits of a judicial appointment system.

In Nevada, she's lobbying for the passage of ballot Question 1, which if passed in November would amend the state constitution to take the selection of judges out of voters' hands.

Instead, an appointed board would review applications from judicial candidates and select three finalists. The governor would then appoint a judge from the list. The public would be able to review candidate evaluations, attend commission hearings and comment on the process.

Twelve to 25 months after being appointed, the judge would stand for a “retention election,” in which voters would decide with an up-or-down vote whether he or she should remain on the bench.

Proponents say the system results in more qualified judges, a better informed electorate and fewer pay-to-play scandals. If judges don't have to raise money for campaigns, they won't be beholden to campaign donors.

"The money makes judges politicians," argued Sam Lionel, a Las Vegas trial lawyer who supports merit selection.

A Harris Poll found that 76 percent of voters nationally believe campaign contributions affect a judge’s courtroom decisions. A quarter of judges themselves said they are impacted by campaign cash.

But a recent poll by the Las Vegas Review-Journal found that Nevada voters oppose Question 1 by a rate of almost 2 to 1. About a fifth of voters were undecided.

Arizona instituted merit selection in the mid-70s. O'Connor, then an Arizona judge, admitted the change was hard to sell at the time but said it worked out extremely well. Colorado and Utah, along with 27 other states, select judges by appointment.

"You hope judges will be qualified, fair and impartial -- not good vote-getters," O'Connor said.

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