Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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View Program and Text Highlights

The video highlight shows our panelists in action. The Discussion Guide frames their debates in contemporary terms, while the Ethics Reader grounds the discussion in the philosophy of the past.

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How much information should a judicial candidate disclose?

John Fairfield, a former prosecutor and respected state trial judge, is thinking of pursuing a lifelong dream: a seat on the state supreme court. In Fairfield's state, Centralia, all the judges are chosen in nonpartisan elections, with no limits on what can be spent—or said—in the process of campaigning. Once Fairfield announces his candidacy, a group called Centralians for an Informed Public sends him a survey asking him to spell out his judicial philosophy and his opinion on certain controversial decisions such as Roe v. Wade. Should he answer the survey? One way or another, should he let the public know where he stands on issues voters care about?

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Framing This Discussion (from the Discussion Guide)

The scenario raises questions about the judicial imperative to keep judges independent and the selection process free from cronyism. Democratic elections of any kind are open contests of interests, with the interest groups proudly and openly standing behind (and contributing to the election funds of) the candidate whom they think will look after their interests. But judges are not supposed to promote the interests of the groups that elected them. They are supposed to apply the law without fear or favor, and that means in total disregard of who contributed to the campaign. Justice is supposed to be blind.

For a deeper examination of the analysis abridged here, see the Discussion Guide.

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Philosophical Grounding of This Discussion (from the Ethics Reader)

It is unlikely that Aristotle would support judicial elections. The following excerpt from his Nichomachean Ethics points out that people must be ruled by laws that are immune from fluctuating political, personal, and popular opinions:

[J]ustice exists only between men whose mutual relations are governed by law; and law exists for men between whom there is injustice; for legal justice is the discrimination of the just and the unjust.

And between men between whom there is injustice there is also unjust action (though there is not injustice between all between whom there is unjust action), and this is assigning too much to oneself of things good in themselves and too little of things evil in themselves. This is why we do not allow a man to rule, but rational principle, because a man behaves thus in his own interests and becomes a tyrant. The magistrate on the other hand is the guardian of justice, and, if of justice, then of equality also. And since he is assumed to have no more than his share, if he is just (for he does not assign to himself more of what is good in itself, unless such a share is proportional to his merits—so that it is for others that he labours, and it is for this reason that men, as we stated previously, say that justice is 'another's good'), therefore a reward must be given him, and this is honour and privilege; but those for whom such things are not enough become tyrants.

To read selections from philosophical texts relevant to this program, see Ethics Reader.

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