Our courts are sometimes overlooked in elections compared to elected legislators.
At election time, many voters pick up their ballots and voter guides and vote for president, governor, senator, and representative, but pause when they reach judges and justices.
Many are unopposed: Just check the box? Whom to vote for if opposed? Candidates rarely offer voters advice during low-key campaigns.
The headlines show those alternatives matter.
Last month’s Wisconsin state Supreme Court election, unusual in its attention, spending, and political impact, may have been the year’s most significant. Its political contours—a purportedly neutral election between candidates openly sponsored by Democratic against Republican interests—are evident.
While his claim is disputed, Texas federal judge Matthew Kacsmaryk has claimed the power to ban a drug nationwide, thrusting him into national politics.
Oregon voters approved Measure 114, which regulates gun sales, ownership, transfers, and related activities, by 50.6% last year. The Oregon Firearms Federation and Sherman County Sheriff Brad Lohrey quickly sued in federal court in Portland, claiming the measure violated the Second Amendment. A federal judge approved the measure with some delays on Feb. 20.
Critics of the measure have continued. On December 2, Gun Owners of America, the Gun Owners Foundation, Gliff Asmussen, and Joseph Arnold proceeded to state court before the federal judge ruled. They filed in Harney and Grant counties’ 24th judicial district, which has one elected judge, Robert S. Raschio. Raschio in Burns stopped the bill statewide three hours after the federal court verdict.
The decision was clearly more Burns-oriented than Portland-oriented. “The court finds that there is less than a one in 1,000,000 chance of a person being a fatality in a mass shooting in Oregon,” Raschio wrote on Jan. 2. Even less with a large-capacity magazine offender.”
Local judges affect Oregonians.
The Louisiana Supreme Court has refused state attorneys’ requests to intervene. The Burns courthouse has held the legislation for months.
Senate Bill 348, currently in the Oregon Senate, proposes to adopt Measure 114 with some changes to overcome the court impasse. It also requires legal challenges to be heard in Marion County courts in Salem. (This provision has been added to legislation before.)
This disproves the idea that judges apply the law impartially. Measure 114’s plaintiffs withdrew the case after being displeased with the court’s decision. Dissatisfied, another interest demanded a third venue.
Powerful courts. Whether properly decided, Oregon appellate court decisions have set state policy on public employee retirements, campaign finance, and free speech. Harney County judgments show that the Supreme Court isn’t the only one that matters.
We don’t know the judges’ backgrounds. Like the federal court in Amarillo, Texas, who upheld the abortion pill, Rachio’s judgment appears to have adopted gun rights proponents’ wide arguments and wording. That suggests a background in particular social patterns of thought outside of legal case books. Portland and Eugene judges may have a similar background, but from a different perspective.
We all carry social and experiential baggage to our work, regardless of professional training.
But for judges, we may need to look closer and ask more questions when appointed or elected to know what we’re getting. It depends.