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John Oliver explains why elected judges are terrible for American democracy

On Sunday, Last Week Tonight host John Oliver criticized one of the most unique aspects of US democracy: elected state judges.

"The problem with an elected judiciary is sometimes the right decision is neither easy nor popular," Oliver said. "And yet, campaigns force judges to look over their shoulder on every ruling."

Oliver said the big concern is that these popular elections, which occur in 39 states, force judges to take tough-on-crime stances to look like they're cracking down on the nation's worst criminals — just to appease voters. One study by two Emory Law School professors found that state supreme court justices are less likely to rule in favor of criminal defendants when TV ads label them "soft on crime."

Elected officials, including judges, have pushed policies for decades that have turned the US into the world's leader of mass incarceration. The empirical evidence suggests that locking up so many people does little to contain or reduce crime. Instead, it costs taxpayers millions each year to fund prisons, and some nonviolent offenders end up imprisoned for decades for crimes as small as marijuana trafficking.

Sometimes judges may have their decisions swayed by campaign contributions, which can come from lawyers who are presenting cases the judges are ruling on. A 2006 New York Times investigation found that justices on the Ohio Supreme Court routinely sat on cases after receiving contributions from some of the parties involved, voting in favor of contributors an average of 70 percent of the time.

Campaign contributions can also raise a lot of questions about a judge's credibility and biases. Oliver pointed to one judge in Texas who shook down a lawyer who had contributed to his opponent's campaign, writing in an email, "I trust that you will see your way clear to contribute to my campaign account in an amount reflective of the $2,000 contribution you made towards my defeat." In another example, a judge told a crowd about how they needed him to deal with traffic tickets, suggesting he would give supporters an easier time.

"Faith in a strong, independent judiciary is essential in civilized society," Oliver said. "If we're going to keep electing judges, we may have to alter our idea of what justice is."

Further reading16 theories for why crime plummeted in the US.