Requests for Information related to Thomas Jefferson


[The following represents a reversal.  Whereas correspondents usually ask
me questions about Jefferson, this time I asked a correspondent (who is a
practicing lawyer) two questions related to Jefferson's views.]

> There are two questions, however, I have
> always wanted to ask a practicing lawyer, and I would like to present to
> you, if you have a moment to address them.  But please don't feel that I
> am extracting a price for my assistance (which I always gladly provide
> freely) or that you have to answer at length.
> One is: Jefferson stated in places that he did not believe that judges
> should be given life-time appointments without periodic review.  He
> believed that a Supreme Court justice, for example, should be subjected
> to a simple-majority approval by Congress every ten years.  I'm not sure
> that would be a good idea, given our present Congress.  But what do you
> think?

Really not a bad idea.  We all know that judges' tenure shouldn't be too
short -- I'm a firm believer that the judicial branch is ineffective if
it must depend too heavily on the legislature and the executive branch
and those who elect them.  Life tenure, on the other hand, may be too
long.  You might be interested to know that Delaware's state court
judges are appointed by the governor to 12-year terms and, while usually
reappointed, are sometimes "dinged" if they misbehave in office (by
"dinged," I mean not reapointed).  This happened a few years ago to a
sitting Justice of the Delaware Supreme Court; while many were taken
aback, there was conspicuous silence rather than an outcry against his
nonrenewal.  And 12 years, or 10 as Jefferson suggested, is pretty good
insurance against sudden shifts in electoral mood.

> The other is, Do you think we get the best judges from the appointment
> process or from the elective process?  Jefferson liked the idea of
> introducing the people into every aspect of government where they were
> competent.  I am not sure that he expressed himself vis-a-vis one against
> the other, though he did say that he felt the people were competent to
> evaluate a judge on the basis of his character.

I very much prefer the appointive method.  Pennsylvania and Texas elect
their judges, and the quality of the bench is, to my mind, distinctly
unimpressive.  An appointive merit system has its political overtones,
to be sure, but sending judges into the campaign trenches to seek votes
and beg for money (from whom, the lawyers?) seems like a colossal waste
of talent; worse yet, the ability to schmooze and raise money do not in
my experience regularly correspond to judicial temperament and
analytical talent.  Delaware's system, to which (after 21 years) I'm
partial, is appointive; in a bigger state, I think there would be even
more argument for the appointment system, since I'm skeptical (perhaps
unlike Jefferson) that political campaigns adequately illuminate a
judicial candidate's abilities as a judge.


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