Take the pledge

May 02, 2006

Judicial independence and impartiality are under assault from many directions these days.

Supreme Court nominees are bullied into expressing their philosophies as judicial Pablum lest one interest group or another take offense. The failure of state and federal judges to knuckle under to pressure from Congress last year on the Terri Schiavo case resulted in threats of retribution. A Maryland lawmaker even tried recently to have a Baltimore Circuit Court judge removed from office because she ruled against the state ban on gay marriage.

And now it seems no holds are barred in judicial election contests, thanks to a Supreme Court decision that struck down prohibitions on judicial candidates expressing legal and political views.

The only way to ensure that contested judgeship races in Maryland this year are conducted in a dignified manner worthy of the office may be for the candidates to comply voluntarily with preset standards. This page strongly urges them to do so.

Professional codes of conduct adopted in Maryland and other states during the 1970s banned judicial candidates from making promises or commitments about future decisions because that would undermine their obligation to judge each case impartially on its merits.

But the Supreme Court determined in 2002 that such prohibitions intrude on candidates' free speech rights. Since then, courts across the country have been struggling with how to maintain some semblance of impartial decorum in judicial contests that are becoming increasingly nasty and hard-fought.

At the direction of Robert M. Bell, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, a bipartisan panel chaired by former Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs and former U.S. attorney George Beall developed a voluntary code of campaign conduct, which was announced yesterday. The committee is now trying to win support for its standards among voters as well as potential judicial contenders.

The only enforcement tool is the public's refusal to accept bias or irresponsible behavior from candidates for the bench. That may be difficult in the instance of a charming demagogue who says what voters want to hear. But a fair-minded, independent judiciary is worth avoiding the temptation.

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