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Justice O’Connor partners with DU institute to reform judicial selection

Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has chosen the University of Denver Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS) as home base to mount a national effort to reform the way judges are selected.

She will chair the O’Connor Judicial Selection Initiative, made up of judges, business and nonprofit executives, and lawyers who will try to persuade states to choose judges based on merit rather than direct elections.

O’Connor and IAALS officials see eye-to-eye on the issue and believe electing judges is at best problematic, and at worst simply wrong. “The United States Supreme Court recently issued two opinions that turn up the heat on judicial elections,” says Rebecca Love Kourlis, IAALS executive director and a former Colorado Supreme Court justice. “There is more reason now than ever before for states to consider changing their system.”

The group’s work will focus on making judges more than “politicians in robes,” O’Connor told The New York Times.

O’Connor has fought for reform on the issue since the 1970s, when as an Arizona state legislator she helped create a merit selection system for judges. Last summer Kourlis asked O’Connor if she thought the time was right to move on the issue nationally. O’Connor said yes, and since August 2009 Kourlis has been building the initiative, which was announced in December.

“[O’Connor] saw fit to connect with DU; she could have gone anywhere she wanted, but I like to think she chose IAALS because of our reputation for getting things done,” Kourlis says. “She’s a can-do kind of person herself.”

Kourlis says the initiative’s recommendations include four steps: nomination of judges by people (not predominantly lawyers); appointment of judges by a governor; objective evaluation of those judges; and “retention elections” in which the public votes on whether the judge remains in his or her position.

“These are steps that keep money out of the picture and are nonpartisan,” Kourlis says.

IAALS was founded in 2006 to create a more effective and user-friendly justice system, saying the current model was fraught with outdated rules, excessive costs and delays, lack of transparency and a politicized judicial selection process.

IAALS tackles large-scale projects. One such effort was to modernize the rules of civil procedure, which are the road map of the U.S. legal system. The institute, in collaboration with an American College of Trial Lawyers task force, released a set of reform recommendations that some states have begun to apply.

IAALS reports that 33 states have elections for judges at some level. Initiative participants have begun meeting and offering interested states, including Nevada, public education support and policy reform resources.

Dallas Jamison, IAALS director of marketing and communications, says she sees “great synergy” between O’Connor and IAALS. “Judicial selection has been a core issue at IAALS since our inception, so we believe combining Justice O’Connor’s passion and expertise with our own track record in this area is a winning combination.”


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