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Ethics and Religion Talk: Should Judges be Involved in Local or National Politics?

Should judges be involved in local or national politics?

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

For more resources on interfaith dialogue and understanding, see the Kaufman Interfaith Institute page and their weekly Interfaith Insight column at

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

We are experiencing a significant moment in our history now. Before now, many of the electorate seemed to be quite uninterested in who warmed the many benches around the country, include the Big One in Washington. This is because courts have become so politized. Some judges are allowed to align with a party, depending on state law. In Michigan all judicial seats are at least in theory nonpartisan. But it is usually the case that the informed voter is able to discern where a candidate’s political affinities lie. 

We are always pleasantly surprised when a judge rules on a case in a way that we assume might not further the ideological goals of his or her favored party. Sadly, this is becoming rarer and rarer. And while it is not typical to see a judge openly supporting partisan efforts, we are seeing more overt collaboration. 

The good news is that the more honest a candidate is about where they stand on the issues, the more we are able to make appropriate decisions at the ballot box. Case in point: In the latest election in Wisconsin, we had one judge who was very honest about how she would rule on key issues. Her conservative opponent was rather vague on the issues.  This resulted in one of the most successful (in terms people to the polls) judicial elections ever.

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

Codes of Conduct are clearly written for all judges in the United States. Each judge would be obligated to ensure their behavior falls within those approved guidelines. It is also true that some judges do run for office or are elected officials. In that case they should be involved in local politics.

I do find it difficult when judges appear to favor one political group over another. Judges serve us best when they follow the rule of law rather than patrician politics. 

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

Politics are an inevitable part of every “polis,” that is, any community, city, or state. Well qualified, trustworthy, and independent judges are vital to the wellbeing of any state, especially where the government is “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” The corrupting power of partisan, big money politics should be restrained from wrapping its tentacles around the selection of judges. Current trends provide all the proof one could require that mixing politics with jurisprudence is harmful to good order and the wellbeing of a commonwealth.

There is a strong Biblical precedent for appointment of judges by competent executive authority, adhering to strict standards and guidelines. When Jethro of Midian came to visit his son in law Moses, he observed that the task of being the task of being a one-man court of all claims was too much for Moses. So he advised Moses to “provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness” and place  them over various national subdivisions, according to the population, “and let them judge the people at all seasons” (Exodus 18:13-23).  Looking for ability, the fear of God, regard for truth, and disdain for financial gain, would serve us well in the selection of judges at the national, state, and local level. ​​

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

I am a judge. The law I use is the Law of the Catholic Church. I do not see how judges may remain impartial if they give the perception of political bias. There is a reason the Constitution of the United States declared there are three co-equal branches of government.

I judge it naïve to believe judges cannot have their political thoughts. I determine it is inappropriate for judges to render decisions according to their political beliefs. Judges ought to stay out of local, state, and national politics.

My response:

The Bible and Jewish tradition hold justice as a fundamental value, based on “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20) and Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel: “On three things is the world established — on justice, on truth, and on peace.” (Pirkei Avot 1:18)

The Bible and Jewish commentary warn judges against bias or even the appearance of bias: “You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly.” (Leviticus 19:15) 

“Judges need to be people of strength through good deeds.... And they need to be clean of any infraction, so that no one can make any claim of bias against them.” Midrash Tanchuma, Shoftim 3:1 

In their private lives, Judges have the same right to vote as the rest of us. But in their public lives, judges should not endorse or accept endorsements from candidates or parties. They should not accept gifts from people or organizations who might potentially have business in front of the court. If they find that they have inadvertently accepted such a gift, they should recuse themselves.


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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