August 18, 2010

Ethics panel clamps down on judges

Recent judgments by a judicial ethics panel are limiting the ability of judges to get involved in elections.

In the past two weeks, the panel has barred judges from holding "meet and greet" events for judicial candidates and from having political campaign signs in their yard.

The panel ruled that having "meet and greet" events and campaign signs would constitute an improper endorsement of a candidate by a sitting judge.

The panel's opinions raise interesting questions on what exactly constitutes protected political speech and what limits, if any, can be applied to that speech when it deals with judges.

Does a citizen lose his or her right to engage in political speech upon becoming a judge?  Is the image of impartiality so important that certain core rights can be abridged?

Why do we demand our judges become blank slates once elected?  They certainly had political opinions before becoming judges, and they certainly have them while serving as a judge.

The idea behind prohibiting judges from making candidate endorsements is a fear that they will be seen as "political."  Yet does muzzling a judge make him or her any less political?  Of course not.  Judges still have political opinions. They just can't express them now.

A judge could be absolutely silent on candidate endorsements and still be a partisan hack in the courtroom, just as a judge could be a proud partisan and be the epitome of fairness in the courtroom.

Making a candidate endorsement does not make a judge any more partisan or "political."  Rather, the endorsement is simply an outlet for what the judge already believes.