Guest Commentary

Term limits for judges would help level the courtroom playing field

The Rev. Vernon Percy Howard Jr.
The Rev. Vernon Percy Howard Jr.

Most of us value the ideal of a free and independent judiciary envisioned to be impartial, focused on statutes and minimally influenced by politics or pressures such as the economy, political parties, wealthy corporate interests, race or concerns about individual income or vocational security.

Some think excluding judgeships from term limits would help achieve this aspiration. But we are naive to believe that political factors somehow do not influence decisions. The fact of the matter is that judges do not operate in a bubble. And the elected officials who appoint judges often choose them because their politics align.

Such was and is the case with President Donald Trump in the Justice Brett Kavanaugh debacle. Because of these kinds of unavoidable intrusions where political factors outweigh the value of impartiality, term limits can offer a safeguard against permanent outcomes of stacking the deck with judiciaries whose political interests trump justice and fairness — or as in this instance, where the nominee has a clear record of jurisprudence in application of the law that fits the political interests of the president who appointed him.

The broader crisis in our democracy this question raises is the full and informed participation of the electorate with respect to all three branches of government. We need grassroots monitoring, analysis, education and dissemination of the facts and implications around the decisions of judges.

And certainly, questions should be asked. Are prospective judges sufficiently experienced in the law? Are they of an even keel in temperament? Are they extraordinarily knowledgeable? Do they understand the dispensation of justice? Are they humble and free from a god complex? Do they know how to correctly apply the law to the facts of the case? Do they possess trial experience? Do they understand the law is sometimes imperfect, flawed and unable to render justice, and that it will sometimes have to be tempered by a sense of fairness?

Our need to defend democracy in this new millennium must include structural and organized oversight of judges and regular retention votes. And, if we decide to implement term limits, judges should serve long enough to foster freedom and independence, yet short enough to avoid stacking political decks.

Regarding communities of color, women and other marginalized groups, however, the notion of term limits requires a different scope. Often people of color must work harder and longer to obtain judgeships. We most often find ourselves underrepresented behind the bench and over-represented in front of it. These disparities, widely documented in scholarly research, are part of the broader issues within the criminal justice crisis in America, which is dogged by structural racism.

African Americans are cautious at the least, and many are outright opposed to term limits in any instance because we fear those limits would erode the presence of black judges, in the same way these restrictions have termed out some of the strong, well-connected, effective representatives in our communities on the local and statewide levels.

With our democracy under such threat and siege by the Supreme Court’s defanging of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, questions of foreign influence and collusion, voter suppression efforts by state legislatures, low voter turnout trends, control by the elitist and super-wealthy — and the subsequent loss of hope in the whole process that many of us feel — the question of term limits is paramount to the preservation and upward trajectory of our democracy.

Our current non-partisan voter education and mobilization initiative “Take It Back,” sponsored by nonprofits such as the Urban Summit, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference here in Kansas City and many others, is designed to restore the passion and power of voting to the electorate toward the ideal of that “more perfect union” leading up to this Nov. 6 and beyond.

The Rev. Vernon Percy Howard Jr. is president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City, senior pastor of The St. Mark Church and coordinator of the Urban Summit’s voter initiative “Take it Back.” He is a member of The Star’s Missouri Influencers panel.