Setting limits

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 29, 2004

Past judicial elections in Alabama sparked controversy and conflict over what candidates for judicial office can and cannot comment on to voters and in responses to questionnaires for organizations that compile voter guides.

So far, candidates in this year's elections have no real answers about how much they can answer, while the Christian Coalition, which produced a questionnaire that sparked the previous debate, is planning to produce a voter guide again this year.

The Alabama Supreme Court had rules for years restricting what judicial candidates could say, especially about pending cases.

That led to the vagaries of judges describing themselves as strict constructionists and assuring everyone they planned to interpret laws, not make them.

It eliminated discussion of specific issues that some candidates might want to stay away from anyway, like big punitive verdicts in civil cases.

But a 2002 ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court in a Minnesota case said that state's Supreme Court cannot bar judicial candidates from discussing their views on disputed legal and political issues. The ruling and recent history in judicial elections have the state Supreme Court Committee on Judicial Conduct and Ethics reviewing potential changes in Alabama's rules.

The committee hopes to send recommendations to the Supreme Court soon. It will be up to the state Supreme Court to make any changes deemed necessary.

There must be some middle ground between no comment campaigns and improper comments about issues before the court.

We don't need judges who campaign on whether or not they will uphold a particular verdict, but Alabamians do need to know something about a candidate before going to the polls.

In some statewide races, voters may be inclined to rely on voter guides to acquaint them with candidates unfamiliar in this part of the state.

It may benefit voters if candidates are allowed to answer questionnaires from organizations that endorse candidates or prepare voter guides.

It may benefit voters more to remember the limitations of assessing a candidate from a questionnaire. Some could easily be responding with what they think is the "right" answer to get high marks with an organization that could guide voters to support them.

The Gadsden Times