Holy courts! The Christians are coming

There are two sad elements to this story from the Los Angeles Times, titled “Gaveling for God: Christian lawyers seek judgeships in move that could blur church-state line.”

The first is that though the story comes out of San Diego, where the LAT published a separate edition not long ago and produced great reporting from even more recently, it was written by a reporter for the Associated Press. (Tony Perry is still soldiering on, though his focus these days seems to be on military issues.) Sad, I know, but I’ve been down this road too many times recently. In short: The Los Angeles Times isn’t what it used to be.

More specific to this article, though, is the incredulous nature of the AP reporter’s work.

I understand that reporters, especially at the AP, work under tight deadlines and are often under pressure to turn around stories before they’ve even had a chance to seriously think through what the antagonists and protagonists of their story have told them. But one of the first things I was taught, when I was still working for my college paper no less, is that any reporter worth his salt needs a functioning BS radar.

Here’s an excerpt to work with:

Vowing to be God’s ambassadors on the bench, the four San Diego Superior Court candidates are backed by pastors, gun enthusiasts, and opponents of abortion and same-sex marriages.

“We believe our country is under assault and needs Christian values,” said Craig Candelore, a family law attorney who is one of the group’s candidates. “Unfortunately, God has called upon us to do this only with the judiciary.”

The challenge is unheard of in California, one of 33 states to directly elect judges. Critics say the campaign is aimed at packing the courts with judges who adhere to the religious right’s moral agenda and threatens both the impartiality of the court system and the separation of church and state.

Opponents fear the June 8 race is a strategy that could transform courtroom benches just like some school boards, which have seen an increasing number of Christian conservatives win seats in cities across the country and push for such issues as prayer in classrooms.

So far, it might not be clear why I think this story is overblown at best. And the next paragraph certainly doesn’t help my case:

“Any organization that wants judges to subscribe to a certain political party or certain value system or certain way of ruling to me threatens the independence of the judiciary,” San Diego County’s District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said.

“Judges should be evaluated based on their qualifications and their duty to follow the law.”

But here is where an insightful reporter earns his or her paycheck (meager as it may be, these days). Everything the district attorney said is true. In fact, she might have understated the duty of judges. They should be qualified; they must be impartial.

More significantly though — and this is only obliquely referenced — judges are bound to follow the law. Those three words are why any political effort to pack trial courts would have little jurisprudential effect.

Even if the Better Courts Now group (not sure why the AP put that name in quotations) intended to replace every judge on the San Diego Superior Court with fundamentalist Christians — and there is no indication of such a master plan — their effort would be hamstrung by the structure of the judiciary.

To start, these candidates, whose qualifications and politics are discussed later in the story, are running for spots on the superior court bench — the bottom of the judicial totem pole.

They rarely would hear gun rights, abortion or same-sex marriage cases. More importantly, their opinions would be bound by higher court rulings (California Court of Appeals and the state Supreme Court for state law; the Ninth Circuit and U.S. Supreme Court for issues of federal law). If they ignored common law, their decisions would be reversed on appeal.

That would be a headache, no doubt, but not a threat to American courts in general.

Should the reporter have known this?

I’d say so. But even if she didn’t, she should have found out.

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  • Jerry

    More significantly though — and this is only obliquely referenced — judges are bound to follow the law. Those three words are why any political effort to pack trial courts would have little jurisprudential effect.

    Even if the Better Courts Now group (not sure why the AP put that name in quotations)

    To start, these candidates, whose qualifications and politics are discussed later in the story, are running for spots on the superior court bench — the bottom of the judicial totem pole.

    One might disagree, but the use of scare quotes is or should be in the AP Style book.

    I think one of the duties of a reporter is to understand the larger context and aims of a group and reflect that in a story. Certainly they’re starting small, but their stated aim is to turn the US into a Christian theocracy step by step and that should be reflected in the story as well. So I don’t see it the way you do.

  • will47

    I’d agree the article needs to discuss stare decisis in order to render a competent analysis, though I’m not sure that these candidates would agree with your assessment. Indeed, they are clearly campaigning on an assertion that their election will lead to the furtherance of the values they espouse. And there are, unfortunately, a number of situations where trial judges’ personal ideology (left or right) seems to trump clear, controlling precedent. When that occurs, the parties can incur significant legal expenses going up to the next level on appeal.

    As far as the quotation marks, they don’t seem to be scare quotes, because the group’s name is rendered without quotes later in the story. I think it’s just bad style.

  • Jay

    The big problem with the AP — particularly in smaller markets — is that their reporters are extreme generalists, covering a car crash one minute and a political scandal the next.

    Even if they were knowledgeable court reporters — and thus experts on the appeals process, common law, precedent etc. — they still might be prisoners of their beat. If their normal court sources don’t like the change, and leak that it’s a catastrophe waiting to happen, then a reporter might run the story because they sympathize with the judges about to be booted out.

  • Alex

    Thanks, you are the first article to defend them, Good!

    I would like to know what the sitting judge’s religious position or lack of. I mean we are examining the candidates but not examining the judges they are running against.

    The way all these other articles are slamming Christians, it leads you to believe we want only atheist judges on the bench. And since everyone is worried about our Constitution being undermined by the “Christians”, lets ask why nearly 80% of the judges in San Diego are appointed and not elected, even though the California Constitution calls for elections. The judicial system has been hijacked, and I also would urge readers to research the 4 sitting judges (being run against), criminal history and bankruptcies!

  • http://www.magdalenesegg.blogspot.com Rev. Michael Church

    Um, Alex, I don’t think Brad was defending anybody. I think he was suggesting that the AP reporter might have pointed out to readers that the particular matters the candidates say they would like to have an effect on are not really the ones likely to come before them in the posts they seek. In other words, that their campaigns are built on what Brad calls BS.

  • http://www.mormoninmichigan.blogspot.com John Pack Lambert

    The analogy to school boards is totally out of line because judges do not develop policy, while that is the duty of school boards.

    This is an example of scare tactics at their worst. Beyond this, judges all over the country run with some sort of partisan backing. Here is Michigan candidates for the state supreme court are nominated by party political conventions. In our last race the incumbent Chief Justice was ousted by an opponant who ran campaign ads that included lies about the incumbent. …