Whether it’s inherent in the religious right, an outsider’s lack of knowledge or both, there was a huge display of ignorance at the LifeLight christian music festival in Sioux Falls. The Argus Leader reports today that religious right broadcaster James Dobson urged attendees to vote against Amendment A on November’s ballot because it will result in “unelected” judges who are behind a “civil war of values.” Dobson is clueless.
Amendment A would change the method of selecting trial court level judges. Currently, they are elected. If Amendment A is approved, they would be appointed by the governor based on recommendations from the Judicial Qualifications Commission. That commission includes a non-lawyer from each party appointed by the governor. For Dobson or anyone to contend Amendment A will result in activist judges forcing values down our throats is asinine.
First, it ignores the fact that over 105 years of statehood, Republicans have held the governor’s office for all but 22 years, including the last 25. Anyone who thinks a South Dakota governor, particularly one in the GOP, is going to put “activist judges” on the bench knows nothing about South Dakota.
Second, any ruling by a trial court is subject to review by the South Dakota Supreme Court. Amendment A does not change the manner in which Supreme Court justices are selected. And, as might be expected given our political history, every current member of the Supreme Court was appointed by a Republican governor.
Finally, let’s assume some governor puts an “activist” on the trial court or the Supreme Court. Based on the Argus article, Dobson — inadvertently or intentionally — failed to mention that every Supreme Court justice will be subject to a statewide retention election while every trial court judge will be subject to a retention election in the judicial circuit in which they sit. (The latter evidently being another radical plot for community-based control and decision-making.) The retention elections, held three years after initial appointment and every eight years thereafter, are simply up or down votes on whether to keep a particular judge. As a result, the electorate has full power to oust “activist judges” through the voting booth. Yet this is a system Dobson described as “tyranny.”
I encourage intelligent debate on whether trial level judges should be selected initially by election or appointment. I’ve made some of my thoughts on that issue plain. But for Dobson to describe Amendment A as “tyranny” and a mechanism for activist judges to force moral values down our throats has nothing to do with the merits or demerits of the proposal. It’s just another example of the religious right’s pattern of misleading and fear-mongering.