Holy courts! The Christians are coming

There are two sad elements to this story from the Los Angeles Times, titled "Gaveling for God: Christian lawyers seek judgeships in move that could blur church-state line." The first is that though the story comes out of San Diego, where the LAT published a separate edition not long ago and produced great reporting from even more recently, it was written by a reporter for the Associated Press. (Tony Perry is still soldiering on, though his focus these days seems to be on military issues.) Sad, I know, but I've been down this road too many times recently. In short: The Los Angeles Times isn't what it used to be.

More specific to this article, though, is the incredulous nature of the AP reporter's work.

I understand that reporters, especially at the AP, work under tight deadlines and are often under pressure to turn around stories before they've even had a chance to seriously think through what the antagonists and protagonists of their story have told them. But one of the first things I was taught, when I was still working for my college paper no less, is that any reporter worth his salt needs a functioning BS radar.

Here's an excerpt to work with:

Vowing to be God's ambassadors on the bench, the four San Diego Superior Court candidates are backed by pastors, gun enthusiasts, and opponents of abortion and same-sex marriages.

"We believe our country is under assault and needs Christian values," said Craig Candelore, a family law attorney who is one of the group's candidates. "Unfortunately, God has called upon us to do this only with the judiciary."

The challenge is unheard of in California, one of 33 states to directly elect judges. Critics say the campaign is aimed at packing the courts with judges who adhere to the religious right's moral agenda and threatens both the impartiality of the court system and the separation of church and state.

Opponents fear the June 8 race is a strategy that could transform courtroom benches just like some school boards, which have seen an increasing number of Christian conservatives win seats in cities across the country and push for such issues as prayer in classrooms.

So far, it might not be clear why I think this story is overblown at best. And the next paragraph certainly doesn't help my case:

"Any organization that wants judges to subscribe to a certain political party or certain value system or certain way of ruling to me threatens the independence of the judiciary," San Diego County's District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said.

"Judges should be evaluated based on their qualifications and their duty to follow the law."

But here is where an insightful reporter earns his or her paycheck (meager as it may be, these days). Everything the district attorney said is true. In fact, she might have understated the duty of judges. They should be qualified; they must be impartial.

More significantly though -- and this is only obliquely referenced -- judges are bound to follow the law. Those three words are why any political effort to pack trial courts would have little jurisprudential effect.

Even if the Better Courts Now group (not sure why the AP put that name in quotations) intended to replace every judge on the San Diego Superior Court with fundamentalist Christians -- and there is no indication of such a master plan -- their effort would be hamstrung by the structure of the judiciary.

To start, these candidates, whose qualifications and politics are discussed later in the story, are running for spots on the superior court bench -- the bottom of the judicial totem pole.

They rarely would hear gun rights, abortion or same-sex marriage cases. More importantly, their opinions would be bound by higher court rulings (California Court of Appeals and the state Supreme Court for state law; the Ninth Circuit and U.S. Supreme Court for issues of federal law). If they ignored common law, their decisions would be reversed on appeal.

That would be a headache, no doubt, but not a threat to American courts in general.

Should the reporter have known this?

I'd say so. But even if she didn't, she should have found out.

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