Political scientists no doubt can explain the reasons for the phenomenon, but it is increasingly obvious that incumbents have a significant advantage when it comes to seeking elected office. Judicial races in the May 2 balloting here are an interesting case in point.
Only one sitting judge faces a challenger, and that jurist, City Court Judge Sherry Paty, is an incumbent with an asterisk. Ms. Paty’s tenure does not cover a whole term; she was elected to fill the term of the late Judge John Millican. The current election, then, is the first time she’s sought public approval for a full term. Every other incumbent on the ballot is unopposed in the May 2 primary and the August 2 general election.
Indeed, the only contested judicial posts are those open because the occupants are retiring. Judge Sam Payne and Judge Doug Meyer, long-serving jurists in circuit and criminal courts, respectively, chose not to run, thus creating a vacuum for candidates to fill.
The result is a bare-bones list of contested judicial races on the upcoming ballot. Ms. Paty faces a challenge from Gerald Webb. The only other contest is the primary battle between Thomas "Tom" Crutchfield and Steven W. Grant, attorneys competing for the Democratic nomination to fill Judge Payne’s seat. The winner will face W. Jeffrey Hollingsworth, a Republican with no primary opponent, in balloting in August.
There are only two candidates to fill Judge Meyer’s seat. Neither Barry Steelman, a Republican, nor Rodney Strong, a Democrat, have primary opposition. They’ll face off in the August election.
And that’s it. No other incumbent jurist whose term expires this year has opposition. Still, the lack of a competitive ballot for judgeships is no reason for voters to avoid the polling station during the early voting period or on election day.
The ballot is a useful tool, even when the race is not contested. It is a handy way to rate an incumbent’s performance. A complimentary yea vote signifies appreciation for a job well done; the lack of a vote is a powerful reminder that at least some of the public finds fault with the judge’s performance. Those votes will not go unnoticed.
Incumbents without opposition are not divorced from the election process. They follow the campaigning that leads to election day. They eagerly check the number by their names when the final tally of votes is printed. Voting or not voting for an unopposed candidate is not a senseless exercise. It is communication between the public and those who hold public office.
That being the case, voters should let Chancery Court Judges Frank Brown and Howell N. Peoples know how they rate their performances. They should do the same for Judges Jackie Schulten, L. Marie Williams and W. Neil Thomas III of Circuit Court. Ditto for Criminal Court Judges Rebecca J. Stern and Don Poole. The latter is not a true incumbent but a recent and well-received appointee to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Judge Steve Bevil.
Citizens looking for more active politicking in judicial races will have to wait until August. Five Sessions Court seats are on the ballot then. There are no challengers for three long-serving incumbents. The remaining races have drawn a large field of candidates, and those races promise to be heated.
Incumbent or not, every judicial candidate should be scrutinized by voters. The best available way to publicly vet an unopposed candidates is to affirm their performance with a positive vote or to question their work by the withholding of a vote.