WASHINGTON – Americans love electing judges, but they worry that campaign cash can compromise a judge's principles, a new poll shows.
The findings of the survey conducted for the American Bar Association and being made public Monday illustrate a paradox that hinders efforts to end popular elections for the bench.
The ABA and other legal groups have long argued that appointments would improve courts by getting the most qualified people as judges and insulating them from politics.
More than 80 percent of state court judges face some elections, and those races have gotten more expensive. Federal judges are appointed by the president, and some states also have appointment systems.
At the ABA's convention, incoming president Alfred P. Carlton Jr. was announcing formation of a group to explore alternatives. The panel does not expect Americans to give up their elections, he said, but it will look at limits for campaigns to solve what he sees as a public relations problem for judiciaries.
"We must defuse the escalating partisan battle over America's courts," Carlton said.
Three-fourths of those polled said they have more confidence in judges they elect than those who are chosen for them through appointments. However, nearly the same proportion expressed concern about the impact of campaign fund raising on judges' impartiality.
"It's an enigma," said Arthur Miller, a Harvard law professor who supports appointment systems based on candidates' qualifications. "The least we can do is get out of this buying of judgeships through campaign contributions."
About 40 states have some type of judicial elections, and most of them limit what candidates can say while campaigning. States are having to review their restrictions after the Supreme Court struck down Minnesota's limits in June.
The ruling opens the door for candidates to talk more freely about controversial issues such as abortion and school prayer.
The poll found that people don't mind candidates speaking out. Six in 10 said that voicing an opinion on an issue does not mean a contender will be partial on the subject later as a judge.
Another finding in the poll: Nearly two out of three questioned said they would put more trust in a judicial candidate who was not affiliated with a political party. The ABA said eight states have partisan elections for all trial court judges — Alabama, Illinois, Louisiana, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia.
Harris Interactive conducted the poll for the ABA, surveying 1,040 people by phone from Aug. 2-5. The poll has an error margin of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.