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The chief justices of 17 states joined Thursday in urging substantial reform in the way judges are elected nationwide, including a call for nonpartisan elections and public financing of campaigns. The jurists also advocated for the lengthening of terms that judges serve to reduce campaigning and for greater participation by community groups and bar associations to encourage fair and informed elections. Joined by legislators and reform advocates, the chief justices issued their “call to action” in Baltimore during a regular meeting of the Conference of Chief Justices. The public announcement is a follow-up to an unprecedented summit of the chief justices in Chicago last December, convened by Texas Chief Justice Thomas Phillips. Responding to the growing number of costly and politicized judicial elections, Phillips and others agreed that the justices themselves needed to tackle the problem in hopes of promoting judicial independence and public respect. “As currently conducted in many states, judicial election campaigns pose a substantial threat to judicial independence and impartiality, and undermine public trust in the judicial system,” said Roger Warren, president of the National Center for State Courts, which is affiliated with the chief justices’ group. Warren cited a 1999 survey that his group commissioned — 80 percent of respondents said judges were “generally honest and fair,” but 81 percent said politics influenced judges’ decisions. More than 75 percent said the need to solicit campaign donations influenced elected judges. The electoral changes suggested by the chief justices represent a shift in longstanding efforts to reform state judicial elections. For many years, reformers sought an end to judicial elections altogether in favor of appointment by governors. But voters have proven reluctant to give up electing judges — including voters in Florida who, last November, were given a choice between election and appointment. A majority in every county in the state opted for elections. Nationwide, 87 percent of state trial and appellate judges face elections to gain or retain their positions. The focus of reformers has changed to improving, rather than eliminating, judicial elections. “Too little attention has been given to incremental changes in the judicial election process to address some of the most serious threats to judicial independence,” the chief justices said in their statement Thursday. “We reject the notion that nothing can be done.” Among the recommendations of the chief justices: � Judicial elections should be “nonpartisan,” meaning that candidates should not be identified by party. According to the American Judicature Society, some or all judges in 14 states are elected initially or retained through partisan elections. � The terms of office for judges, especially the first term before facing retention elections, should be lengthened, and laws limiting the number of terms that a judge can serve should be eliminated. � To alleviate the need for fund-raising, judicial elections should be publicly and adequately financed. “Even in states that reject public funding for representative officials, the nature of the judicial function makes public funding particularly appropriate for judicial elections,” the chief justices agreed. � Hotlines and monitoring groups should be established to encourage “fair and ethical” elections and accurate advertising. � Judicial canons of ethics should be re-examined to promote fair elections while “safeguarding the right to free speech.” In some states, judges have challenged, on First Amendment grounds, efforts by government agencies to review their ads or restrict what they can say during campaigns. � Voter guides, published at no cost to candidates, should be widely disseminated to encourage awareness. The media should be encouraged to broadcast debates among candidates. � Bar associations and other groups should conduct and publicize regular evaluations of judges. In addition to Texas, the states whose chief justices joined the call to action were: California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Washington state, and Wisconsin. Another summit will be called later this year to enlist other states in the reform effort, according to Phillips, the Texas chief justice.

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