Democratic system puts politics into law enforcement

David Usborne
Thursday 12 June 2003 00:00 BST

Drive for any length of time across the United States and at some point you will hit a small town in the throes of elections. Neat front lawns will be punctured by placards on wooden stakes exhorting townspeople to vote for this or that person for this or that office. What may surprise will be the banners asking for support for a would-be judge.

Democracy, in other words, is alive and well in the American judiciary and always has been. So, for better or worse, is the sport of politics. Most lower- level justices have their place in town courthouses because they have been elected to serve by their constituents. And all will have a party affiliation, usually Republican or Democrat.

You might, for example, be passing through Pittsburgh. The man approaching you with a flyer at the petrol station asking for your vote might just be Peter Dausch. Mr Dausch wants to be one of the city's district justices, who, if elected, will spend four years hearing cases involving crimes ranging from petty to grave.

What are his qualifications? Well, Mr Dausch is undoubtedly a respected figure in the community. But he has never before run for public office, let alone had any experience dispensing justice; he is the owner and manager of the Benjamin Beetle clothing store in downtown Pittsburgh. But he thinks that has given him sufficient grounding to know how to deal with wrongdoers. "You can't jus' slap kids with fines and think the problem will be solved," he said recently. "You can't just throw everybody in jail."

District attorneys, who are in charge of bringing prosecutions, are always elected officials. Robert Morgenthau has been repeatedly re-elected in Manhattan, for example. He is a master of the press conference and the reason is obvious: he is a politician as well as a lawman. The same goes for Elliott Spitzer. Currently the Attorney General of New York State, he has spearheaded the effort to bring Wall Street brokerages to book for biased research on companies. Mr Spitzer may have a bright political future. Next stop, the governorship?

Police chiefs, on the other hand, are usually appointed by city and town mayors. But political affiliation matters for them obviously. A Democrat mayor will favour a Democrat policeman. And it is the President who appoints all the most senior justices in the land, on the Supreme Court and the federal District Courts. Once more, political affiliations are vital. President Bush has no interest in making the Supreme Court more Democrat.

US District Judge Colleen McMahon, who sits in White Plains, New York state, explained the system at a confer-ence on judges and politics. Of the process of appointment, she said: "Some think the process is too political. But there is no way it can not be political. You have to be willing to deal with that reality if being a judge is something you want to be."

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