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March 6, 2015

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Fishing with Ralston

A quick quiz for next week’s primary — and no cheating by surfing the Net:

1. Name the four candidates running for the open state Supreme Court seat.

2. Can you tell me anything about the candidates running against Judge Jessie Walsh, or why she might be an embattled incumbent?

3. Why is Judge Donald Mosley under assault from one of his opponents through a robocall campaign, which the incumbent is countering with TV ads?

4. In the race for a new District Court seat, can you tell me which candidate is a deputy attorney general, which one works for a nonprofit and which two are private practitioners?

My guess is most people reading this not only would fail this test, but likely would not get one question completely correct. So during an unprecedented year in which dozens (!) of judicial races will be on the ballot, they will be decided by an electorate populated mostly by voters who will choose judges not because of their AV rating or serene temperaments but because they remember their name — or perhaps they will choose the woman or simply close their eyes and press a button.

Indeed, if the judge’s name isn’t Halverson — yes, folks, she is on the ballot, too — voters who have not had the (dis) pleasure to appear before a judge probably don’t know much about him or her. And so many will step into the voting booth Tuesday — and many have through early and absentee voting — making critical choices while essentially wearing blindfolds.

This is akin to a doctor’s performing surgery without knowing the patient’s condition. Or a pitcher’s stepping onto the mound with no knowledge of the hitters he is about to face. Or perhaps a journalist’s writing about a subject without doing any research (please, keep the brickbats to a minimum here).

If ever there were an election to wake up the populace to halt the travesty of judges’ running for office, this is it. Take a look at your sample ballot and you will see.

There is that crucial Supreme Court race with a diverse quartet of contenders, some who are advertising on TV to win election through cutesy sound bites and fake smiles. All you need to get on the highest court in the state is a lot of money and some good theme music. Lofty, ain’t it?

But many District Court and Family Court seats are also up for grabs and incumbents who have been tarred in the media are fighting off sometimes-qualified challengers with feel-good media messages they can afford because of campaign contributions from lawyers and their clients who will appear before them. Ain’t the system grand?

Lawmakers last session started the ball rolling to amend the Constitution to create a selection plan that would involve gubernatorial appointments and then retention elections. A majority of states have some kind of merit system, but three-fifths still use elections in one way or another. The American Bar Association long ago favored the idea and Missouri became the first state to adopt such a plan more than seven decades ago — thus the name of any successive state system has been dubbed a modified Missouri Plan.

The problem here and in other states has been what it usually is in elections: voters. Many voters are swayed by arguments that a selection process deprives them of their precious right to choose judges as they do congressmen and county commissioners. Then they show how seriously they take that right by being ignorant — or some reasonable facsimile thereof — when they exercise that right.

Not that this little fact is relevant, but Halverson won two years ago by less than 1 percentage point over a perennial judicial contender — anyone want to know more about Bill Henderson now?

I’ve heard all the lame excuses — people have busy lives so there’s no time to become informed is the most frequently used. Another reason sloth is one of the seven deadly sins.

But an appointive system would eliminate the need for voters to actually do their homework and provide a vetting mechanism that could produce better judges. No system is perfect and appointment processes could become infected with cronyism. But in this contest, it’s no question which is the lesser of the two evils.

I bet you are wondering about the answers to those questions I posed at the beginning. Here’s some advice for those of you who haven’t foolishly voted early:

Do some research.

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