Hainkel: Merit, not campaigns and cash, should anoint judges

Reformers hoping 3rd time's the charm


By Ed Anderson
Capital bureau/The Times-Picayune

BATON ROUGE -- With the quality of the state judiciary worsening because of the influx of special interest money to election campaigns, the state Legislature should institute a merit selection system for judges, Senate President John Hainkel said Thursday.

Speaking before the Louisiana Organization for Judicial Excellence, the New Orleans Republican said he will enlist Gov. Foster's help to get lawmakers to adopt such a system during the 2003 legislative session. Hainkel, a civil lawyer with 41 years' experience, said he has never seen a worse judiciary -- mainly because judicial races have become pitched money battles between trial lawyers and businesses organizations, he said. As a result, he said, the public perception of judges is that they are biased toward the side that helped them get elected or raise money.

"The quality of the judges is steadily disintegrating," Hainkel said. "The system, while not totally impacted, is degenerating and degenerating and degenerating. . . . Nobody should be able to buy justice. When you do, you are buying injustice.

"We have a lot of good judges, but we have a sufficient amount of really bad judges that we need to correct the damn thing," he said.

Foster said later Thursday that he would be delighted to work on such legislation, calling it "long overdue," but he noted that it would need the support of both trial lawyers and business groups to survive.

"I'm all for it," Foster said. "I think we could craft a system that wouldn't be biased. . . . I would be willing to participate with any group to get it done. It is better than what we have now."

In the merit selection system Hainkel proposes, a committee of educators and others would make a list of three nominees for a judgeship and the governor would appoint one of them. After two years, the judge would face a retention election. If approved, Hainkel said, the judge would stay in office another six years and then face another retention election. If the voters did not keep the judge, he or she would be removed and the governor would name another candidate based on committee recommendations.

Hainkel urged the Organization for Judicial Excellence to start lining up allies to get a merit system passed next year.

Tom Lind, a New Orleans lawyer who is vice president of the organization, said it will raise $500,000 by the fall for a public education and media campaign on changing the judicial system. He said about $200,000 has been raised so far.

"This way, a judge would not be beholden to any interest group," Lind said. "There would be no campaign financing since there would be no campaigning."

Hainkel has tried to get merit selection bills passed twice before, but they have died in the House or on the Senate floor. He hopes that public disgust or ambivalence toward the judiciary and a federal court case challenging the way some judges are elected now pending in Baton Rouge will give the proposal the impetus it needs.

"I think we have a decent shot to get it passed," he said.

© The Times-Picayune. Used with permission.

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