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Your Tewksbury Today

Op-Ed: Who Judges The Judges?

May 25, 2018 05:48AM ● By Bill Gilman


By David Robertson

Over the last few days there has been great media coverage of a long-time issue here in Massachusetts; the release of repeatedly violent criminals who have continued to live a life of crime. 

Most recently Judge Tim Feeley released Manuel Soto-Vittini, a longtime heroin dealer, by claiming his crimes were financially based, as if it was similar to providing bread to his family. This, of course, ignores all those who potentially overdosed or had their lives destroyed by Soto-Vittini's poison. Only a few weeks before Massachusetts lost one of its finest, Officer Sean Gannon. This was by a criminal who started dealing drugs and robbing individuals as a teenager, and deserves no mention by name. I could continue listing heartbreaking issues such as these, but it would take up far too much space. What is apparent is the system needs to be examined. 

Over the next few weeks you'll likely hear a pitch that sounds good, and appears to be a silver bullet when it comes to oversight on judges ruling. This of course, is directly elected judges. There are many aspects of this touted to be better, such as accountability to the general public, which Massachusetts currently lacks. However, when one looks closer at this issue, many issues and flaws with this suggestion also come to late. In fact, elected judges were first brought to the ballot early last century to increased judicial independence, striking down more laws than many who preceded them and upholding criminal accountability by following the rule of law, rather than letting certain folks off due to political patronage. Over the past century, this system has completely reversed itself and when measured, has become more corrupt than appointed judges.

Professor Jed Shugerman, a graduate of the top-ranked Yale Law School and now a professor at Fordham, did a terrific in-depth study of elected judges that eventually he published into a book. Through his research he found out that since elected judges must appeal to contributors, judicial rulings become compromised when certain favorable parties appear before the bench. In addition, elected judges have a much higher percentage of their rulings overturned by superior courts, showing that elected judicial authorities choose the correct ruling at rates below those of an appointed counterpart. This research has been since confirmed by Emory University, NYU, and the non-partisan Constitution Center. In Michigan, a battleground state with an even split among Democrats and Republicans over 13 million dollars was contributed to judge campaigns. With that sort of money floating around, how can justice be fair from either side?

So what can we do to clean up our act here in Massachusetts? Long-time, Reagan-appointed Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day-O'Connor actually has a brilliant, common-sense solution. First  appoint like Massachusetts does, then wait and let the judge work. After a certain term, Justice Day-O'Connor suggests, have voters elect these judges back to power if they are doing a good job in the eyes of the public. This hybrid plan is ingenious for several reasons. Political appointments are often more-vetted and experienced, guaranteeing a higher quality of judgeship that elected states fail to maintain. In addition, the removal of any ballot races aside from accountability removes the potential corruption that money donated to judges would otherwise risk, while giving the . When a judges term is up, say every 7 years as suggest by Justice Day-O'Connor, voters face a simple choice based on the judge's track record and no more. There are no competitors and no need to raise money, it's time to send them back to the bench or for the Governor and their council to pick a new appointee. 

This balanced, while sensible, approach would bring to Massachusetts what we in the state need; accountability. In addition to allowing us regular folks to hold those in government accountable, it preserves the higher quality of rulings that the majority of judges, who tend to do a good job overall, bring to the courts. In addition, it insulates us from potential corruption that many elected judges show, and ensures that in several years we won't be reading about an elected judge because they let off the relative of their largest donor, who actually was “only selling heroin to get by.”

(David Robertson is a Tewksbury resident and a candidate for the Democratic nomination for state representative from the 19th Middlesex District. He served as legislative aide to the late state Rep. Jim Miceli.)
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