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VOL. 121 | NO. 148 | Thursday, July 27, 2006

Justice is Blind, But Voters Shouldn't Be Blindfolded

LANCE ALLAN | Special to The Daily News

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Before heading to the polls for the Aug. 3 election, it might be wise to make a quick stop by any party supply store for a blindfold.

You won't be taking a turn at whacking a piñata, and you won't need it for a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey. Unless you've spent much time around the 73 candidates for judicial positions in Shelby County, wearing that blindfold while voting might be your only alternative.

But the Memphis Bar Association gives a reason to take a peek out from under that blindfold. For more than 15 years, the bar has conducted a poll of candidates in contested judicial elections with the hope that the area's practicing attorneys might be able to provide a little insight into the candidates. Results are available at www.memphisbar.org.

"I've been on the committee for as long as the poll has been done and it's always been of great interest to me," said Joy Bomar of McCrary & Associates and a co-chair, along with Judge Robert Childers of the bar's Judicial Practice & Procedure Committee, which released its Judicial Qualification Poll July 14.

"I feel that it's extremely important for the voting public to see who the bar association thinks is the best qualified."

From folks who know

The poll was sent to 3,025 attorneys in the Memphis area, including members and non-members of the Memphis Bar Association. Of those, only 400 attorneys responded, but that might not be a bad thing.

"You should do your due diligence before voting. The physical part should be a minute part of the process. As a voter, you have to educate yourself, and with so many on the ballot, there's no easy way to do it."
- Wyatt Bunker
Shelby County Commission

"It is my opinion that one of the reasons that the bar association's poll is so important, generally the 400 people that respond are 400 people that go to court all the time," Bomar said. "You may have some that have an axe to grind, but normally it's people who go to court all the time. In Memphis we have a lot of attorneys who don't make it into the courtroom and they don't respond. It's sad, but they feel they don't have the knowledge to rank or rate these judges."

Attorneys were asked to rate candidates' qualifications based on things such as legal knowledge, experience and reputation for competence in the practice area or judicial service. Attorneys rated candidates as either highly qualified, qualified or not qualified. If more than one candidate was rated highly qualified, the attorney then selected the one candidate best qualified.

If an attorney did not know or had no opinion about a candidate's qualifications, there was a "no opinion" option.

Of all the judicial positions on the ballot in Shelby County, the poll looked at the 21 contested positions.

Voter education is key

Resources such as the qualification poll are only one source of information voters can use, as both political parties have endorsed judicial candidates - something done in the past, but not with quite as much energy as this time around.

But it's important to keep an open mind and use as many resources as possible, said Wyatt Bunker, who defeated incumbent Tom Moss in the May Republican primary for a seat on the Shelby County Commission. He is unopposed on the August ballot.

To see results of the Memphis Bar Association's 2006 Judicial Qualification Poll, visit www.memphisbar.org

"I wouldn't rely on one particular item in any process," he said. "I encourage everyone to do their own independent research. It's our responsibility to educate ourselves when we go in and push that button. You should do your due diligence before voting. The physical part should be a minute part of the process. As a voter, you have to educate yourself, and with so many on the ballot, there's no easy way to do it."

Bunker said he was impressed with the judicial candidates the Republicans endorsed. But whether Democrat or Republican, an endorsement doesn't mean voters should stick purely to party lines.

"People should look closely at candidates and not which party endorsed them," he said. "The judicial system is one of the cornerstones of our society and we've got to set aside a lot of the petty bickering and party politics. We have a responsibility to look at all candidates. These are not partisan politics."

Independence = appointment

Some people have expressed concern over political parties endorsing judicial candidates. Other concerns are related to judges - who must remain impartial - having to campaign.

Not all states elect judges. There have been discussions in Tennessee to change that, including a report in 1996 from the Commission on the Future of the Tennessee Judicial System.

"The bottom line is they recommended that judges be appointed instead of elected, but quite frankly, this report went the way of the circular file," Bomar said. "Nobody wanted to read it. It's going to take a constitutional amendment to appoint judges instead of elect them, and no one seems to be interested."

The fact is that on Aug. 3, the public will be voting for judicial positions. And whether voters depend on the judicial qualification poll, party endorsements or some other piece of information, confidence in their votes is key.

"I have supported a couple of judges very strongly," Bunker said. "If the need ever arose where I had to stand in front of a judge, if that judge were willing to throw the book at me for what I had done, then he would have passed the test of what I expect. They would disappoint me unless they are willing to throw the book at me, even if I supported them the most. You can't come back and say, 'The Republicans endorsed me.' Then he or she has failed us all. You have to have that expectation of independence out of these candidates."

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