News & Press

ALABAMA VOICES: Worthy of the Office by J. Mark White

This article originally appeared in the Montgomery Advertiser.

Thanks to Judge Bill Gordon and his Judicial Campaign Oversight Committee, Alabama has a real chance for a supreme court election that will not be an embarrassment.

Both candidates for the open Supreme Court seat, Judge Deborah Bell Paseur and Judge Greg Shaw, have signed the Oversight Committee’s pledge to conduct their campaigns in an ethically responsible manner. They are to be commended.

Other appellate judicial candidates have also signed the pledge. One hopes all the other candidates will demonstrate the courage and character of those candidates. Removal of the negative personal attacks from our judicial campaigns will allow Alabamians to cast their votes based on experience, integrity, professional competence, judicial temperament and service.

It will also permit candidates to campaign on their commitment to the law rather than attempt to influence public opinion through mudslinging.

Now that our candidates have pledged to run campaigns worthy of the offices they seek, we must find a way to stop wasting so much money on our judicial elections. In the last election cycle, $17 million were spent on Alabama’s judicial campaigns. In the same year, $7 million were spent providing Alabama’s poor access to our judicial system.

Much of the money spent on the judicial campaigns was spent on television advertising. Remember any of the TV spots from the 2006 campaign? Do you remember the negative ads that attacked candidates on a personal level, or do you remember the positive ads, ads that really told you who the candidates were and why they deserved your vote?

If you’re like many Alabamians, you remember the content from the positive ads, and you remember that the negative ads left a bad taste in your mouth toward both candidates.

Judicial campaign managers, contributors, and consultants must ask themselves whether the negative ads make enough of a difference to be worth the risk. Judicial candidates must ask a much more important question of themselves: do these ads tell Alabama voters who I really am, or are they a second-rate way to try and win an election?

Going negative may be a sure ticket to a losing campaign, as evidenced by the 53 incumbent Texas judges who recently lost elections due to campaigns based on negative personal attacks. Alabama voters should ignore expensive campaign ads that seek to create nothing more than fear and hate.

We have better things to spend our money on in this state. Access to justice for our poor and adequate indigent defense funding are far more important than dirty campaigns. The state of Alabama provides far too little money for criminal defense for the poor. The state provides nothing for poor Alabamians who need a civil attorney.

Fewer than 20 percent of the civil legal needs of the poor in our state were met last year. Problems in our indigent defense system must also be addressed to help ensure that every Alabamian who is accused of a crime will receive quality representation.

An indigent defense bill will be introduced in our state Legislature this year that makes delivery of legal services much more efficient and directs more dollars to the local trial level. We simply cannot allow our judicial system to operate one way for people who can afford an attorney and another for people who cannot. By expanding access to the courts and providing adequate funding for our indigent defense system, we ensure that the “least of these” among us is served by our judicial system.

Our system of justice must not only appear to be just — it must also be just in action. It is my hope that the candidates seeking to serve on the state’s highest court will turn the tide on negative campaigning. The candidates involved in the election process must take the lead in ethical and honest campaigning. The rest of us should expect and accept no less.

I ask all to join me in my commitment to the law and to providing access to justice for all Alabamians. Having judicial candidates who pledge to adhere to the Canons of Judicial Ethics and who refuse to sling mud at each other is a good place to start.

J. Mark White of Birmingham is president of the 15,700-member Alabama State Bar, the official organization of lawyers in Alabama. White is a partner in the law firm of White Arnold & Dowd P.C.