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Court Justices Deride Idea of Elected Judges

State of Wyoming Photo

Wyoming Supreme Court Justice E. James Burke told a story Thursday that would be funny if it wasn’t so scary.

Before his appointment to the high court in 2005, Burke had served as a district court judge in Cheyenne, he told an audience of about two hundred after a live court event sponsored by Casper College and local lawyers.

As a rookie district judge, Burke was sent to a nationwide new-judge school that, among other things, assigned the students to review a hypothetical sentencing case and make a ruling, he said.

When time came for the rulings on the hypothetical case, one judge said he needed more information, Burke said. The other judges asked why, since they seemed to have all the information they needed.

This judge wanted to know when he would need to issue the a ruling. “When” was important because he was elected as “law and order” judge, and said he didn’t want to do anything to risk losing his seat at election time by appearing soft on crime.

This judge wasn’t joking, Burke said.

The other judges weren’t laughing, Burke added.

“Everyone was horrified,” he said. “That was pretty scary to me.”

Thursday, he and the other Wyoming Supreme Court justices lauded the state’s system of “merit selection” by an appointment process of nominating, vetting and having the governor name the judges.

According to justiceatstake.org, eight states hold partisan elections and 14 states hold nonpartisan elections for supreme court and appellate judges. Another 10 hold elections for some major trial judges.

Justice Kate Fox, who was sworn in as the newest justice in January, said judges should be insulated from the vagaries of politics to stay independent.

They should not be looking over their shoulders to monitor polls or wonder where their next campaign contribution will come from, Fox added.

However, Wyoming citizens are not totally shut out, Chief Justice Marilyn Kite said.

Wyoming balances its merit selection process by allowing citizens the opportunity to vote whether to retain judges, Kite said. “We’re pretty sure we have the right one (system),” Kite said.

 

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