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Here Come the Judges: Why Voters Should Take Judicial Races Seriously

Christopher Blank/WKNO

Shelby County voters face a very long ballot during the August 4 election, which is now in early voting. Nearly half of the candidates are running to become a judge. But for most voters, that can seem like coin toss. So, how do you pick a judge? We spoke with David Wade, chair of the Judicial Practices and Procedures Committee with the Memphis Bar Association.

(This transcript has been edited for clarity.)

Q: First off, why do we put this decision to voters? Why not let local government nominate and confirm them?

Wade: There are two basic systems for selecting judges. The federal system is by appointment by the President, confirmed by the Senate. State Courts, at least in Tennessee, are by popular vote. I suppose it's basically a choice as to which system you prefer. Both of them have their problems — obviously putting the election of judges to a vast populace who very rarely go into courts is difficult. And the question is getting the people educated.

Q: I suppose it's bad form for a judge to campaign like a politician. You know, you can't really make a campaign promise. Like," I'm not going to put people in jail for so long," or whatever. So what exactly does the judge run on? The resume? The respect of peers?

Wade: You're exactly right. Judges can't run on individual decisions they make in cases. But they can run on their record of judicial temperament, their respect by members of the bar, their tenure in office and their support in the broad community, by their parties, by civic organizations and things like that.

Q: Has the current state of partisan politics affected judicial races?

You know, it has. In the past, judicial races were strictly nonpartisan and they still are to an extent. But a particular judge will send out a flyer that shows that that judge is supported by this party or that party, or by politicians who are prominent in one party at the other. But strictly speaking, judges are supposed to be nonpartisan.

Q: The Memphis Bar Association —obviously made up of local lawyers — takes a poll to see which candidates have local support. What do legal professionals want to see in a judge?

Wade: You're trying to get a definition for what judicial temperament is. I'll tell you what I think: I want to see a judge who opens court on time, who is prepared; the judge is familiar with the issues that are to be tried. The most important thing that a judge does is making a decision. [So] preparation, showing up, and deciding the case — and also judicial temperament. Some judges can be acidic. Some judges can be very cordial. I prefer the cordial side.

Q: I noticed you didn't say deciding the case in your favor.

Wade: Absolutely not.

Q: That seems like something that would be a bonus if you if you were looking for a judge.

Wade: No, that is not a bonus. It's not what we're looking for. My Hallmark for a judge is not that the judge decides a case because I'm an advocate. Judge decides the case on the judge's independent review of the law and the facts and comes up with a judgment. I may not agree with it, but I don't expect a judge to decide something just because the judge may be my friend.

Q: As a Memphis voter, I have a vague notion that courtroom decisions do have an impact on our community in the sense that I want to know that justice is taking place here in Memphis and Shelby County. So when I go into the voting booth, how do I make an informed decision about a judge? Where do I start? What am I, as a citizen, looking for?

Wade: You know, the election of judges is an extremely important part of our Constitutional system. We need them. And the important thing that we need to ensure is that our judges are independent and that they make decisions based on the law in the facts.

The only thing that I can say: most people don't go before courts. But there are a lot of people who do. Primarily trial lawyers who are in and out of these courts every day. And that's why I believe that the Memphis Bar Association bar poll is of extremely valuable importance to the citizenry. They should look at it and see what the professionals who are in those courtrooms see on an everyday basis. I don't know that there's any other way that you can get that up front perspective.

Q: Right? There's so many people running for office. It's not like you can do an Internet search for all the candidates to figure out a question this big.

Wade: And a question this that is this important. I would encourage people to see where 1,200 lawyers who are in those courts every day have said "this candidate is the most qualified of all running for that judicial position." That's a primary source of information for people.

Reporting from the gates of Graceland to the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, Christopher has covered Memphis news, arts, culture and politics for more than 20 years in print and on the radio. He is currently WKNO's News Director and Senior Producer at the University of Memphis' Institute for Public Service Reporting. Join his conversations about the Memphis arts scene on the WKNO Culture Desk Facebook page.