Under a banner of geographic diversity, backers of Measure 40 join a national parade to manipulate courts

Oregon voters aren’t the only ones being asked to restructure their courts this fall. Voters in at least four other states will decide on constitutional amendments to do the same.

These ballot measures are part of a national movement to make judges easier to control and punish. Oregon’s measure is one of the harder to stomach, because it comes under the false pretense of encouraging diversity.

Oregon voters shouldn’t be fooled. Measure 40 is another pet project of conservative Nevada millionaire Loren Parks and the state chapter of FreedomWorks, a Washington, D.C.-based anti-tax group. It would harm the state by reducing Oregonians’ voting rights, politicizing the courts and making the job of judge less appealing.

The measures in other states include the following:

* Colorado voters will decide whether to impose term limits for appellate judges. If this constitutional amendment passes, a number of sitting judges will be term-limited off the bench.

* Hawaii voters will be asked to repeal the current age limit for judges, which is 70. Opponents say the measure is intended to deny the Republican governor a chance to appoint new judges.

* Montana voters may make it easier to recall judges who displease them. Currently, judges can be recalled only for official misconduct and other serious problems. This constitutional amendment would allow voters to recall judges for any reason.

* South Dakota voters will consider granting themselves the right to sue judges for rulings they don’t like. If the measure passed, judges could also be fired, fined or jailed by a specially created grand jury. The group sponsoring the amendment is called “JAIL 4 Judges.”

On the spectrum of political manipulation, Oregon fits in between Montana and South Dakota; between harassing the judiciary and terrorizing it.

Measure 40 would require Oregon’s appellate judges to run in geographic districts, much like legislators, rather than statewide. The Legislature would divide the state into seven districts for the Oregon Supreme Court and five (two judges each) for the appeals court. Voters could no longer weigh in on all 17 appellate races, as they do now. They could vote only in the races held within their district.

Backers say this measure would increase the geographic diversity of the bench, which they complain is dominated by people who worked in Portland and the Willamette Valley before getting appointed or elected. The sponsors have a bigger goal: They want to make it cheaper and easier to unseat incumbents –starting with the “liberal elite.”

Thomas Balmer, an associate justice on the Oregon Supreme Court, says the measure is driven by “single-minded hostility” to the current court. He worries about the requirement to live in your district while working in Salem, a rule that would force some judges to quit, maintain two homes or spend long hours commuting.

Mostly, he’s bothered by the prospect of judges turning into political representatives rather than impartial arbiters of the law.

While incumbent judges have reasons to oppose this change to the status quo, so do voters. This fall, for example, all Oregon voters get to pick between Jack Roberts and Virginia Linder, two candidates vying for an open seat on the Supreme Court. If Measure 40 were in effect, 85 percent of Oregon’s voters would be denied a vote in this race.

In fact, if Measure 40 were in effect, both of these good candidates could be barred from running based on the location of their homes. This is a dumb way to attract the most qualified Oregonians to a public service job that is so specialized and influential. It’s clearly not a way to diversify Oregon’s courts, but rather to divide, weaken and conquer them.