Voter Guidance for Retention Elections
What is a retention election?
Many states require judges to be accountable to voters by participating in retention elections. Voters in retention elections don’t choose between candidates. Instead, they decide whether a judge should stay in office. Retention elections were designed as a remedy for removing a judge that has proven to be unfit for office.
My judge participated in a decision I don’t like. Should I vote against retention?
It’s worth considering many factors, and to think carefully before voting to fire a judge over a single decision. Our system of justice depends on courts that are impartial, even when they handle controversial cases or face political attacks. Courts protect everyone’s rights. For instance, the United States Supreme Court has protected the rights of gun owners, in District of Columbia v. Heller and later, McDonald v. Chicago, the rights of property owners, in Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Commission, and the right of parents to choose which school to send their children to, in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris. Courts can’t be impartial if they’re not sufficiently independent. Ousting judges over a single decision could force courts to ignore constitutional rights in the face of political pressure.
For what reasons might I remove a judge?
Retention elections are intended to be an option for voters to remove a judge in the rare instance that he or she is unfit for office. For example, removal may be warranted if a judge has defied the rule of law by taking bribes or by committing other crimes, or if he or she exhibits general incompetence or lacks the temperament or character to hear and decide cases fairly and impartially. Voters should base their assessment on judges’ entire records, not a single decision. Voters should have confidence that judges are fair and impartial, that they have appropriate character, capabilities and credentials, and that they will uphold the law. We expect judges to be smart, hard working, and invested in their communities.
So where can I find out if my judge has these qualities?
To make sure your judge has these qualities, you should consult multiple sources. You can start with biographical information, along with news accounts and campaign materials, to learn about the judge’s training and experience. Many organizations publish information and judicial ratings, including bar associations, nonpartisan groups like the League of Women Voters, minority organizations, and chambers of commerce. It’s also worth examining information about how courts work and materials published by the court. For instance, many courts publish judicial performance evaluations, where attorneys, staff and parties in lawsuits rate judges based on criteria such as legal knowledge, integrity, judicial temperament, communication skills, administrative performance, and service to the public. Finally, talk to your neighbors – they may have met your judge or appeared before him or her in court.