A set of scales symbolizing inequality
Majority of judges appear to favor values transparency in judicial election campaigns

By Lizette Ramirez

April’s Question of the Month asked NJC alumni if they believe candidates in judicial elections should be frank about their values despite being prevented from saying where they stand on specific issues that could come before them.

The question derived from the fact that Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz, who won the hotly contested Wisconsin Supreme Court election in early April, told The New York Times on the day of the election that she believed in being candid with voters about her “values.”

Of the 330 judges who decided to participate in the emailed poll*, 61 percent said yes, judicial candidates should be transparent about their values; about 39 percent said no.

Among those who left comments, many in the majority said voters deserve to know the values of all candidates seeking elective positions.

Judge Al Cercone, retired justice of the peace from Dallas (Texas) County, wrote: ““Even if a judicial candidate cannot help but impose personal values into decisions, the public needs to at least think the judge is impartial to maintain the integrity of the judicial system.”

An anonymous judge stated flatly that “people with personal agendas have no place on any bench,” implying that the public is well served when candidates with personal agendas are up front about those agendas. 

The abortion issue was cited by judges on both sides of the poll responses.

“Perfect example,” an anonymous judge wrote, “(is) the federal judge In Texas (Matthew Kacsmaryk) that has ordered the limitation of the use of the abortion pills. (During the confirmation process, he) [a]ctively removed (his) name from (a) law review article that he advocated cutting back on abortion rights.”

Retired Judge Kitty Schild from El Paso County, Texas, described how it can be complicated for a judicial candidate to be transparent about their values in relation to abortion.

“What candidate isn’t for life? I know I am,” she wrote. “But if I say, ‘I’m pro-life,’ everyone will interpret that to mean I’m anti-abortion and (that I) will rule against all laws allowing women’s choice in these issues.” 

A common refrain among skeptics of values transparency was that it could lead to perceptions of bias and a call for recusal by the judge in certain cases.

“[W]e are ethically bound to be ‘fair and impartial,’ both of which will be called into question if we voice our personal beliefs,” wrote an anonymous judge.

Another judge indicated support for judicial candidates being frank about their values. “But only if their personal values would influence their impartiality. I never thought I would answer this question in that way. But it has become clear to me that some judges are allowing their personal values to sway their judgment.”

In those situations, the judge wrote, the proper course of action would be for the judge to arrange for another judge to take over the case.

* Each month the College emails an informal, non-scientific, one-question survey to its more than 12,000 judicial alumni in the United States and abroad. The results, summarized in the NJC’s Judicial Edge Today, are not intended to be characterized as conclusive research findings.

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