SAN FRANCISCO, AUG. 10 -- Supreme Court Justice Byron R. White said today that forcing judges to run for election poses "serious problems" of interfering with judicial independence.
Speaking at the American Bar Association's annual meeting here, where three California Supreme Court justices were defeated in confirmation elections last November, White stopped short of calling for abolishing judicial elections.
"In a republic like ours where the people are supposed to govern through their public officials, there is something to be said for the notion that judges, who decide matters of life or death, should also be chosen periodically by the people."
However, he said, "If people are to have the brand of justice to which they are entitled, judges must have sufficient protection against political or other pressures that threaten to distort their judgment . . . .
"Judges should not feel compelled or be tempted to decide cases so as to please those who are . . . responsible for them being on the bench, whether it be the appointing authority, political parties who nominate and help elect, or those who make critical contributions to judicial election campaigns, which have become very costly," White said.
Only 11 states do not have elections for judges at any level.
California Chief Justice Rose Bird and two associate justices were defeated in their efforts to win reconfirmation last year in a bitter, highly political election battle in which opponents accused them of being unwilling to enforce the state's death penalty law.
White did not mention the California election in his speech before the ABA's litigation section, which competed with the family law section today for attention. Actress Zsa Zsa Gabor addressed that group on the subject of divorce and alimony.
However, White criticized systems in which judges are elected for short terms and "likely face ouster if their decisions offend politicians or contributors or are unpopular with the public."
For example, White said, "If a judge's ruling for the defendant on a Fourth Amendment claim may determine his fate at the next election, even though his ruling was affirmed and is unquestionably right, constitutional protections would be subject to serious erosion."
In a speech earlier in the day, Chrysler Corp. Chairman Lee Iacocca criticized lawyers and the legal system for contributing to the decline in American competitiveness.
"America today cannot afford all this unbridled advocacy," said Iacocca, the opening speaker at the convention, which has drawn 13,500 lawyers, the largest gathering of lawyers in history.
"Other countries don't spend their time looking for Mr. Deep Pockets," Iacocca said. "They're too busy beating our brains out in the marketplace."
Still, he acknowledged, "When we get into trouble, we all want a bulldog sitting next to us, not a potted plant." Brendan V. Sullivan Jr., the combative lawyer for Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, used the potted plant line in defending his frequent interruptions and objections before the congressional Iran-contra committees.
Referring jokingly to Chrysler's recent legal troubles, Iacocca suggested that car dealers could take a lesson from the lawyers' conventions. "We could get together somewhere and read up on the odometer law," Iacocca said. "Come to think of it, we should have done it last year."
Turning around to Attorney General Edwin Meese III, who was seated on the stage with him, Iacocca said, "I should say for the record, Mr. Meese, that's a joke."
Meese, speaking at a news conference today, denounced calls for his resignation as "political silliness" by "highly partisan, ultraliberal people in the Congress." Nine House Democrats sent a letter to Meese last week calling on him to resign.
He said he agreed with independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh that popularity should not be a factor in deciding whether to bring charges in the Iran-contra affair, and that he had not heard any discussion of pardons for North or other participants.