At a time when public bodies nationwide seem to be struggling to keep campaign finances secret, the Utah Judicial Council has shown the better way. The council decided recently to reject a proposal that would have made donations to Utah's district court judges secret, and in doing so sent a strong message about the need for public disclosure and accountability.
The public ought to know who is bankrolling the retention campaigns of the state's judges.Normally, retention elections are not big campaign issues. Every six years in Utah, district judges appear uncontested on the ballot. Voters simply are asked whether the judges ought to be retained. Because the average person doesn't have to appear before a judge very often, most people vote to retain judges without much thought. Occasionally, however, a group will mount a campaign against a judge it perceives to be biased or unfair.
When that happens, friends of the embattled judge will rally to the defense and mount a counter-offensive. Often, however, these defenders are attorneys who regularly appear before the judge. The question naturally arises, are these true defenders or merely attorneys hoping for some advantage in a future case?
It's a legitimate question, but the answer isn't to make everything secret, even if that secrecy were to extend to the judges themselves, as the proposal suggested. Secrecy harms only the public. The legal community, especially in a state the size of Utah, is too closely knit. Judges will learn who contributed. The contributors themselves, particularly the ones hoping for an advantage, will make it known.
The only answer is to require full disclosure and accountability. As with the election of all other public officials, the public has a right to know who is providing financial support to judges. Money often translates to influence and power. The public's only check against the abuse of these is information.
Three cheers to the Judicial Council, the policy-making body for the state's courts, for standing up for this principle. And three cheers to Richard Howe, new chief justice of the state Supreme Court, for beginning his stint as head of the council in such an auspicious manner.