Better Courts Now
Better Courts Now is a right-wing Christian movement that seeks to replace appointed judges (in San Diego, California, and elsewhere) with elected "Christian conservatives." Candidates are running to replace appointed judges, who are primarily Democrats, and assert that they want to allow the election of judges to take place and limit the appointment of judges. Among other things, they cite a section of the Judicial Canon of Ethics that discourages disparaging remarks about judges or the bench from lawyers and claim their aim is to give voters (right-wing voters especially) a voice on who sits on the bench.
Better Courts Now asserts that it merely wants to inform the public about who are judges are because they make up the third branch of the government. The California Constitution calls for all three branches of government to be held in elections, even though California governors have long exercised power to appoint judges to fill vacancies that arise between elections in order to assure the continuity of the functioning of the courts, and Better Courts Now contends that this should not be the norm. They assert that, for example, in San Diego County over 77% of judges were initially appointed and over 80% of the judges are ex-prosecutors. In their view, some judges are "legislating" from the bench, "making the law" instead of "upholding the law"-- without acknowledging the role judges traditionally play in interpreting the law and applying provisions to the particular facts of the cases before them.
The organization states it "wants the public to be asked: (1) Should judges be elected or appointed? (2) Do we want judges who are atheist, have faith and or someone who is in fear of practicing their faith openly? (3) Why do appointed judges never appear on the ballot and why is a select few appointing judges with out the public's awareness or vote? (4) Why do judges give the public the 'silent treatment' and keep their faith or lack of faith, out of the public's attention.(5) What kinds of values and characteristics do we want in a judge? (6) Why are our courts currently being rated by government agencies as: 'losing perceived impartiality and fairness.'"
As to items two and four, Better Courts Now displays no understanding that the Founding Fathers of the Constitution affirmatively opposed having a religious test for public office in order to protect Americans' freedom of conscience:
- Article VI of the United States Constitution specifically provides that "The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."
Additionally, Better Courts Now apparently has yet to disclose how they chose the four candidates they endorsed on the June 8th 2010 San Diego County election. And, so now their supporters claim that no one can say for sure if it was based on religion, even though they have asserted the desire to restore so-called "conservative values," which is typically code for moral-majority/Christian coalition-type activism. Better Courts Now supporters have also asserted, without any factual foundation, that the San Diego County Bar (the association of almost all the lawyers who practice in the county) was biased in their evaluation of candidates for the bench. Better Courts Now supporters assert that the bar association "does not disclose how they evaluate" sitting judges or prospective ones. It seems BCN supporters are upset that an incumbent judge, DeAnn Salcido, apparently received a "lacking Qualification" evaluation by the San Diego County Bar, but is still serving as a judge. Better Courts Now apparently does not understand that the bar's evaluations are merely advisory and as a non-governmental organization the bar has no role under the California Constitution in the process for removing duly appointed or elected judges.
Better Courts Now is the "brainchild" of Don Hamer, San Diego County's late Zion Christian Fellowship pastor who campaigned for Proposition 8, California's ban on gay marriage, and vetted the candidates before dying of a heart attack in March 2010. Hamer's fellow Pastor Brian Hendry and other supporters have carried on his legacy, pushing to oust appointed judges and replace them with Christian conservative judges, through open elections. The Zion Christian Fellowship's Web site says its goal is to “improve and enhance the witness of Jesus Christ in the areas of government, politics and social issues. It does this by appropriately involving the local church to inform its community, culture and government.”
As of June 1, 2010, four San Diego attorneys are running for the seats of four appointed judges as part of the Better Courts Now campaign. An Associated Press piece noted that they vowed to be God's ambassadors on the bench and said they are on a mission from God, which they apparently now dispute. Better Courts Now supporters purportedly include pastors, gun enthusiasts, opponents of abortion and same-sex marriages, business owners and concerned citizens who are supposedly "strict constitutionalists," even though they ignore Article VI of the Constitution's bar on religious tests for office as referenced above.
Opponents fear that Better Courts Now's efforts will result in judges who have pre-judged legal issues and thus would not be fair and impartial jurists who would follow the law rather than impose their personal beliefs on the outcomes of cases, otherwise known as legislating from the bench or making law rather than applying it, based on their Christian "ideology." (Better Courts Now supporters claim that supposed "atheist" judges may also have biases, but enforcing the Constitution's bar on the establishment of religion and state-enforced imposition of religious tenets as law does not qualify as bias rather than adhering to the law and legal precedents.) The concern is that this effort to take over the local courts could follow the path of many local school boards, which have been taken over by people with a right-wing ideology who want to impose their views on school children by, for example, pushing for prayer in public schools (despite the First Amendment to the Constitution's command that government shall not establish religion). While claiming their candidates would not be biased, Better Courts Now supporters want their preferred judges because they believe one of the many reasons are country is "falling down" is because the U.S. is losing its purported "conservative values." As Better Courts Now fans note, an increasing number of Christian conservatives have won school board seats in cities across the country and are using these positions of power to "push for such issues as prayer in classrooms." These claims ignore the distinction between elected officials whose role is to determine policy, such as the school board, and judges, whose role is to be open-minded and fair-minded adjudicators of legal disputes that come before the court.
Better Courts Now's supporters like to note that some of its opponents include atheist groups and gay rights activists, as well as notable San Diego attorneys, such as the San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Bumamis and San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith (who "openly endorsed" the sitting judges), the San Diego County Bar (whose board members, also endorsed the sitting judges and hosted fundraisers for them), as well as many attorneys and law firms (which they assert, generally, gave campaign contributions to the sitting judges). Better Courts Now supporters claim this is evidence of "corruption" and "a conflict of interest," while not acknowledging how much of their funding or the funding of their supporters is being used to help elect the candidates they prefer in the hopes that they will rule in favor of their social, religious, and political agenda from the bench.
Better Courts Now hopes that the public will be more active in voting for superior court judges, they have a right to elect. The groups uses the rhetoric of "judicial transparency" and asserts that it is standing up against a "back room appointment process" that they believe is the cause of the perceived lack of "impartiality in the courtroom" noted in three surveys about the California courts. They claim that they just want voters asked why the gubernatorial appointment of judges, which is a temporary process to fill an open seat when a judge retires early or dies during his or her six-year term, has become the norm for people to initially become judges, and they assert that the state constitutional election rules have been "hijacked."
The U.S. Constitution, Article VI, barring religious tests for office: http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/data/constitution/article06/
- Greg Moran ‘Moral vote’ group targets four judicial seats, San Diego Union, May 22, 2010
- Elkins Report: http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/jc/tflists/elkins.htm ; Trust and Confidence in the California Courts: http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/reference/documents/4_37pubtrust1.pdf (see pages 17,27 & 28); Commission for Impartial Courts: Final Report 2009: http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/jc/tflists/commimpart.htm (see pages 37, 38, 60, 74, 102-106)
- Rob Boston Judges And The Ballot Box: Religious Right Intervention In Judicial Election Sparks Controversy The Wall of Separation, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State blog, June 1, 2010
- Julie Watson Christian conservatives target seated judges Associated Press, May 30, 2010