Every two years, a handful of California's Superior Court seats open up without the governor appointing new judges to fill them. Lawyers who are impatient with the appointment process, or don't believe they have a chance with the governor, or tried it and failed, take the other available course -- they ask voters to elect them to the bench. But voters struggle with a dearth of information about the candidates.
Good-government groups, bar associations and editorial pages such as this one try to fill the gap by rating or endorsing or at least offering information on candidates' competency, experience and judicial temperament. But political parties and special-interest groups know that they can spice up otherwise boring judicial elections -- and at the same time stock the bench with jurists they believe will be more favorable to their causes -- by eliciting and relaying information aimed at voters' emotions. They have begun peppering candidates and appellate jurists with questionnaires to lock them into positions, and the responses find their way into glossy mailers sent to voters and donors.
It's a step down a dangerous road. Such questionnaires are bald attempts to coax candidates into publicly endorsing one special interest or another and to threaten sitting jurists with removal if their positions and rulings don't pass muster. But banning such questionnaires would violate the candidates' 1st Amendment rights.