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Judicial Elections In Alabama Return To Civility;
Independent Watchdog Group Eyes Clean Campaigns

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Brad Carr
Alabama State Bar
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Montgomery, Ala., September 15, 2008 - There’s been a noticeable difference this year in the tone of the judicial campaign being conducted for a seat on the state Supreme Court, and for that matter, local judicial election campaigns as well.

It’s been quiet.

After earning the dubious distinction for the costliest and nastiest judicial campaign waged in 2006, the credit for restoring “order to the court” lies with a little known group formed in cooperation with the Alabama State Bar called the Judicial Campaign Oversight Committee. Judicial campaign oversight committees seek to ensure that judicial candidates campaign differently from those running for political office.

The committee, comprised of six Republicans and six Democrats is co-chaired by retired Circuit Court Judge William R. Gordon of Montgomery and retired Supreme Court Justice Bernard Harwood of Tuscaloosa. Its members include judges, lawyers and laypersons.

Gordon said, “Overtly negative campaign ads in judicial elections are damaging to the judiciary in a variety of ways. At a time when the public’s trust and confidence in the judicial system is at risk, negative judicial campaigns serve only to intensify the public’s distrust by reinforcing the belief that judges are not impartial.”

The committee has created a campaign agreement that encourages all candidates for judicial office to conduct their campaigns in a manner consistent with the dignity and the integrity of the judicial system, to maintain the dignity of a judicial officer and to achieve the highest ethical standards.

As an example of the committee’s effectiveness, Gordon said judges Deborah Bell Paseur and Greg Shaw have both signed the pledge agreeing to take the high ground as they campaign for the supreme court seat and many of the candidates campaigning for judicial office locally have also signed the pledge.

The rising cost of campaigns, combined with the messages of many negative ads only provide more fodder in the public’s debate about whether our state court judges are beholden to campaign contributors instead of the rule of law.

According to Alabama State Bar President J. Mark White (White Arnold & Dowd P.C.) “Going negative is now a sure ticket to losing a campaign. False and misleading statements are out and taking on issues outside the courtroom is expressly condoned. As an example, one need only look at the 52 incumbent judges in Texas who recently lost election challenges after repeatedly attacking their opponents.”

Gordon said the committee has a three-fold purpose, “We serve as a non-partisan information source for candidates and invite them to have a dialogue with us about ethical standards. We also provide a confidential forum for resolving complaints or issues of the campaign and we offer information to the media and public about campaign conduct.”

Gone are the days of yard signs and simple leaflets. Today, in states like Alabama that use elections to select judges, campaign costs have risen exponentially, television advertising has become a predominant feature in many campaigns, and special interest groups have begun to actively campaign for or against specific candidates. With increasing frequency, special interest groups are playing an active role in judicial elections.

“So long as trial judges are elected in Alabama, the Judicial Campaign Oversight Committee will do what it can to ensure that those elections are conducted in a manner that promotes respect for the integrity and legitimacy of the bench,” Gordon said.

The 15,756-member Alabama State Bar is dedicated to promoting the professional responsibility, competence and satisfaction of its members; improving the administration of justice and increasing public understanding and respect for the law.

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