National Survey: Merit Selection Panels Working Well

Amid a debate in some states over the best ways to ensure fair and impartial courts, a new study released by the American Judicature Society suggests that judicial nominating commissions, a key component of merit selection systems, are working well.

AJS, a Justice at Stake partner group, released today the largest survey ever of members of the nominating commissions, numbering 487 respondents from 30 states and the District of Columbia.

The results indicate that the nonpartisan screening commissions, which recommend judicial candidates for gubernatorial appointment, are highly functional decision-making panels and they are operating consistently with the goals that guided their creation, AJS reported in a press release.

“The survey results indicate judicial nomination commissions are largely operating as they were intended to operate,” said Rachel Paine Caufield, of AJS and of Drake University .

The commissioners who were surveyed believe the merit selection process for picking judges is fair, promotes appointment of well qualified judges and limits a governor’s power appropriately while minimizing the impact of politics on the courts.

In addition, the survey suggested the panels are becoming more systematic, more transparent, more diverse, and reflect intentional efforts to eliminate political influence from deliberations on candidates.

“The merit selection system was designed to take politics out of the process to find qualified judges, and it’s a system AJS has advocated for since its inception,” said Seth Andersen, AJS executive director. “The results contradict common messages politicians send when they suggest legislation to change the merit selection process.”

Especially during election cycles, heated debates arise over the best way to choose judges. In many states where judges are elected, campaign spending and nasty rhetoric have risen sharply, and some reformers have pushed for adoption of merit selection systems. In some other states, existing merit systems have come under attack.

The AJS report is entitled “Inside Merit Selection: The Results of a National Survey of Judicial Nominating commissioners.” It was conducted during summer 2011. To learn more about soaring spending and negative politics in judicial elections, see The New Politics of Judicial Elections reports co-authored by Justice at Stake.

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