The D.C. statehood convention voted narrowly last night to include in a proposed state constitution a system of judicial appointments under which judges would be chosen by the new state's governor but subjected thereafter to periodic voter approval.
Convention delegates voted 15 to 14, with one abstention, for the plan, turning aside warnings from several delegates that it would politicize the judiciary. All judges in the District are currently appointed by the president from candidates recommended by a nominating commission.
"Special interests can rise up in opposition to threaten judges at election time," said Ward 6 delegate Jan Eichhorn.
"It would be nothing but a prostitution of the court system," said Ward 5 delegate Harry Thomas.
But Ward 8 delegate Absalom Jordan Jr., prime mover of the plan adopted last night, contended there is a need for a "balance between independence and accountability . . . I'm only trying to bring about a balance."
The vote came on a first reading of the article on the proposed state's judicial system. It faces two more readings. The narrow vote and low attendance (15 of the 45 delegates were absent) fueled hope among opponents of the proposal that they may be able to reverse the vote at a later stage.
Earlier last night, the convention voted overwhelmingly to create a two-tiered court system--a trial court and a supreme court--leaving the legislature the option to create "inferior" courts, such as local or neighborhood courts to adjudicate minor civil disputes. The convention rejected proposals for an intermediate appellate court between the trial court and the supreme court.
The major debate of the evening erupted over the Jordan plan. It was presented as a substitute for the convention's judiciary committee proposal, which called for appointed judges to serve 10-year terms on the trial court and 12 years on the supreme court.
Under Jordan's proposal, judges appointed by the governor would be "subject to approval or rejection on a nonpartisan ballot at the first general election held more than three years after . . . appointment."
Thereafter, trial court judges would have to undergo voter approval or rejection every six years and supreme court justices every 10 years.
Convention delegate David Clarke, an at-large City Council member, warned that present city judges "could create an extremely strong lobby against statehood in Congress" if they realize they would have to undergo periodic voter approval.
In Maryland, state judges are appointed by the governor from candidates chosen by a nominating commission. Once in office, they must periodically run for election in a manner somewhat similar to the Jordan plan. In Virginia, judges are appointed by the state legislature.