Las Vegas Sun

October 19, 2017

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J. Patrick Coolican:

In some cases, voters should have the keys taken away from them

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J. Patrick Coolican

Quick: Who did you vote for in the 2010 county recorder race? How about public administrator? County treasurer?

Do you know what these elected officials do? I follow this stuff for a living, and I’ll go on record and say that before I started writing this, I didn’t know the duties of the public administrator. I’ve come to find out John J. Cahill — meet your county public administrator! — oversees the affairs of the dead who don’t have a proper estate executor. Yes, we elect someone to do this, as if any of us have any idea what it would even mean to be effective at this job.

It’s an election year, which means it’s time to make choices about the future of our community, choosing elected representatives to deliver on our collective vision. It’s also time to go into the voting booth and pretend we’re qualified to make choices we’re clearly not qualified to make about people we know nothing about.

No doubt when I argue my case that we should clear some of these positions off the ballot — especially the board of regents and judges — the public will cry with outrage that I want to take away their self-determination.

This overconfidence in our ability to elect people stems from the state’s founding, Nevada historian Michael Green told me.

“It tended to be a symptom of the frontier. There was a belief you had to be a little closer to the ground,” he said. The frontier people wanted to manage their own affairs, which apparently included choosing the state printer (thankfully, no longer an elective office).

Many political scientists take a dim view of all these elections. “It’s very hard for voters to know what they’re doing,” said Jonathan Bernstein, a political scientist who blogs at A Plain Blog About Politics.

We’re one of just a handful of states that elects the governing body of our higher education system. (Do you know who your regent is?) Is this wise in a state where a bit more than 20 percent of the residents have a bachelor’s degree? We wind up with a lot of people who never went to college choosing someone who will determine the direction of our colleges and universities. Am I being elitist? Yep.

The real scandal, though, is the election of judges.

There’s the knowledge issue, of course, or more pointedly, the lack of knowledge by voters: “I have a Ph.D. in political science, and I have trouble evaluating judges,” Bernstein said. I’m with him.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal’s “Judging the Judges,” which surveys lawyers to evaluate judges, is a useful tool but inadequate, lawyers told me.

As for quality, this isn’t to say we don’t have some good judges, but our election system no doubt scares off qualified jurists who don’t want to put up with glad-handing and fundraising.

Compare the quality of the judges on the federal bench, who are appointed by the president and confirmed by the senate, to our elected judges. Sorry, but it’s not even close.

More importantly, I agree with the Founding Fathers, who believed one branch of government should be shielded from the whims of capricious public opinion, that judges should make decisions based on the law and not what the polls say. Would an elected U.S. Supreme Court, for instance, have decided correctly on Brown v. Board of Education?

Finally, there’s the scandal of judges raising money from lawyers who argue cases before them.

An attorney I spoke to, who didn’t want to be named, said he has at least one conversation per day with other attorneys about the fear of retribution for not giving to incumbents, or for giving to their challengers.

“The nutburger judges act out in the craziest ways,” he said.

Overall, if the public would sit in some courtrooms for a few days, the attorney said, we’d all be struck by “the impressive lack of understanding of the law, the absence of decent courtroom demeanor and the heavy-handedness of decisionmaking.”

Great job, voters! The fault isn’t ours, however. Sometimes we all need someone to hide the keys.

A version of this column first appeared in Las Vegas Weekly, a sister publication of the Sun.

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