The Memphis Bar Association, the Ben Jones Chapter of the bar association comprised of black lawyers, David Caywood, Richard Fields, and Herman Morris did their darnedest to shed some light on the judicial races in the August 3rd election. They backed up their picks with evidence in many cases. Voters who take the trouble to look over the endorsements and comments, along with the picks of the local Republican and Democratic parties, should be reasonably well informed.
It's a start. It's a big improvement over blindly partisan ballots and, worse, billboard campaigns that rely on red-white-and-blue color schemes and the words "reelect," "return," or "experienced" to tout judicial credentials.
So two cheers, but not three cheers. Lawyers, judges, reporters, and court officials can do better. And we must.
Ever seen a sleeping judge? Yes, it happens. Ever seen a judge take a free vacation from someone with a pending case in his court? It's happened. Ever seen judges who work 20 hours while colleagues work 50? It happens. Ever see judges take campaign contributions from attorneys with business in their court? It happens.
What is needed is a ratings system that compiles the enormous amount of data gathered by the court clerks' offices and reported to the state. Otherwise why collect it? Sure it's hard to boil it down, but we rate and rank mutual funds, schools, cars, students, and entire cities with a single number, letter grade or symbol.
Disclosure is not truly disclosure if it is too cumbersome or confusing. Providing an internet link to a 50-page report on civil and criminal court judges is of limited usefulness, just as the fine print of corporate annual reports and public filings is too unwieldy for the layman. There must be measurements that apply to all candidates and they must be user-friendly.
I liked the Commercial Appeal's Sunday overview of judges. It was a nice piece of public-service journalism that included several lists of endorsements. But there's no substitute for being there, week in and week out, in the courtroom. So my personal sounding board for races involving candidates I don't know is my even-handed friend and former colleague Larry Buser, who has covered the courts for the CA for some 30 years. I expect others use a similar system.