For Schools

High School Students (Grades 7-12)
Judicial Independence/Judicial Accountability

What Makes a Good Judge?
(Balancing Judicial Independence and Judicial Accountability)

Time: 1-2 class periods

The ideal process for selecting judges remains a matter of controversy among scholars, lawyers, jurists, and citizens two hundred years after our country's founding. Too often, the tension between two desirable qualities—accountability and independence—are debated without clarifying to whom judges should be accountable or what is meant by an independent judiciary. This activity asks students to weigh the costs and benefits of two methods of selecting judges (election and merit) by participating in an exercise in which they define the qualities they find desirable in judges. See also What Is Judicial Independence.

Students will

  • Define the qualities that should be considered when selecting a judge.
  • Evaluate the costs and benefits of two methods of selecting and retaining judges—do they provide for judicial independence and judicial accountability?
  • Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the judicial selection process in their state.

Be sure to talk with the teacher in advance about this activity. Provide the teacher with a copy of the activity.

This activity is enhanced if delivered by a judge, lawyer, or member of the judicial district's nomination committee or judicial performance committee. Otherwise, they should serve as a resource person.

Sufficient copies of the following handouts for class distribution.


Begin the class by introducing yourself to the students. As you do so, remember when you were this age and what you might like to know about other people.

Be sure to provide a brief explanation of why you are in the classroom on this particular day. If you have an official Law Day poster, hang it where all can see it. You might consider saying the following, in your own words.

Today, throughout the United States, we are celebrating Law Day. I believe it is very special because I work in the legal field and am very proud of the work I do. But, more importantly, it is special because it allows us to stop and think about our country, the United States of America, and the freedoms we all share. It is also special because this day provides us with an opportunity to talk about the laws that protect us and provide us these very special freedoms.

Establish a focus for the activity by asking the students to describe what they think of when they hear the word "judge." Allow for several responses. Explain that today you will be discussing with them how individuals are selected to become judges.

Distribute Handout 1. Review the directions and ask students to complete the handout. Call time after a limited but sufficient time.

Ask for volunteers to share their top qualities in each category. Reach agreement on the top four qualities in each category. Using the board or flip chart, use those qualities to draft a definition for a good judge. Do the qualities they selected seem to favor accountability or independence?

Explain that while there are various methods to select judges, today you are discussing two specific ways: the election and merit methods. As a way to engage the students in a discussion of these two methods, use the following guideline.

Have the students look at their completed Handout 1. Ask,

  • Which qualities on the list would be important if judges run for office?

  • Can you identify how some of the qualities that it takes to get elected (good campaigner, has the popular touch/understands people, contributions to political party, ties to special interest groups) might conflict with qualities you have placed in the essential or desirable columns?

You may wish to give a current event example of a case where a judge must rule on a controversial case.

  • In contrast, which qualities would be most important if a judge is to be selected through the merit system?

Ask the students to vote by a show of hands as to which process they feel would more likely result in judges with the qualities they have identified. Should judges be selected by election or merit?

Distribute Handout 2. Review with the students the costs and benefits analysis of the election and merit methods of selecting judges.

Distribute Handout 3. Review the background section on the page with the students by briefly discussing some of the historical background of selecting judges throughout the United States.

Have the students look at the map and the chart. Answer the questions concerning the map and chart.

Poll the class to determine what students know about how judges are selected in their state. Specific information about individual state courts (and courts in other states) can be found at The State Court Locator.

Remind the students of two important facts.

  • The constitution of each state specifies how judges will be selected.
  • There is no one single agreed-upon method.
    Support this point by saying that at least some research studies designed to show differences among judges based on the method of selection have found no significant differences.
    In a 1994 University of Miami Law Journal article, Jona Goldschmidt reports on research that attempts to relate personal characteristics of judicial decision making to judicial selection. She reports that "After considering the findings of fourteen studies, [one research team] point[ed] out that attempts to relate background characteristics to individual judicial decision making 'have not been very successful.' "

Optional: If time permits, at the end of the activity, return to Handout 1 and assign small groups to use the characteristics to develop desirable characteristics for a specific type of judge, such as Divorce Court, Bankruptcy Court, Traffic Court, and Juvenile Court. Discuss the lists. Ask the students if they believe a single judge would be suited for all types of courts. Ask the students if they feel the criteria for selecting judges should be refined to match the type of cases the judge will be hearing.

Summary and Closing
After reminding the students that there are strengths and limitations to each selection process, ask for a show of hands as to which selection process they favor. Ask if anyone has changed his or her opinion since the beginning of the discussion. Why or why not?

Can students reach a consensus on one method or build a system that combines the best attributes of both?

Based on the discussion of the benefits and costs of two methods, what specific changes would students want to see in the way judges are selected in their state? What changes can be made so the qualities they identified for judges are ensured for all citizens?

Source material: Landman, James, "An Elusive Idea: Judicial Selection and American Democracy" Social Education , vol. 66, no. 5 (September 2002), pp. 293-301

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