WASHINGTON (CNN) - Two state supreme court justices from neighboring states find themselves in disagreement these days - not over a legal issue,but over how they should have gotten their jobs.
The two justices - Ohio Chief Justice Thomas Moyer and Pennsylvania Justice Seamus McCaffery - were both elected in statewide votes.
Moyer says having to travel across his state to fundraise can erodepublic confidence in the courts.
"Going out asking for money creates a real strain in my judicial work,and I can't promise or predict to voters how I would decide a particular
issue," said Moyer. "It conflicts with the idea that judges are and should be impartial, and not be influenced by anything, especially money."
But as Pennsylvania's newest elected high court member, McCaffery foundvisiting all of his state's 67 counties on his Harley motorcycle to campaign was a treat.
"That's the beauty of having electoral process where we need to beresponsive to the community," said the former Philadelphia cop-turned-judge.
"And I think it's important that judges should be out there. It's just as important as other elected officials."
The experiences of both men are now at the forefront of a growing national debate over selecting judges.
The push for reform has a powerful advocate in retired U.S. Supreme CourtJustice Sandra Day O'Connor. She is lending her reputation and energy - and her name - to a new project aimed at assisting state-level efforts to have judges named by merit-based selection systems, not elections.
"This initiative is a matter of great importance to our country,"O'Connor told CNN. "The amount of money poured into judicial campaigns has
skyrocketed, intensifying the need to re-examine how we choose judges in America. I believe it is our moral duty and obligation to restore the public's confidence in our judicial system."
The O'Connor Judicial Selection Initiative was created by the Denver-based Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System.
The group's founder and director says the 79-year-old justice has long been a passionate defender of judicial independence.
"Justice O'Connor adds practical experience with a [federal] system that works, and she adds a perception of balance and moderation (in) that she has never been associated in the minds of the public with extremes on either side of the political ledger," said Rebecca Kourlis, a retired justice on Colorado's Supreme Court.
Kourlis senses increased momentum for change on the national level, prompted in part by an important U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June, arising from a judicial scandal in West Virginia.
In the so-called "Caperton Caper," the justices found a state judicial counterpart acted improperly when he refused to remove himself from a 2006 civil appeal, despite having received financial support during the campaign for his seat from the CEO of the key defendant.
West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals Justice Brent Benjamin cast the deciding vote in favor of that company, and the high court ruled a perceived conflict of interest should have led to the judge's recusal.
"What the [high] court made clear in 'Caperton' was that judges are different, that campaign donations need to be thought of in a different way
when those donations are going to fund a judicial campaign," said Kourlis. "It put on the front burner those questions of propriety with respect to campaign donations to judges, and how that impacts people's perception of impartiality on the bench."
Nevada has a scheduled ballot initiative to make it the first state in 15 years to switch from voter-based to merit-based selection of judges.
Ohio, too, has begun rethinking is voter-based system. Chief Justice Moyer has been through four elections on the state high court. He finds many voters growing more skeptical of judges in the first place, a perception he says is fueled in part by negative ads from political and business interests with a stake in elections.
"The only way to eliminate the public distrust is to eliminate money from the process," Moyer told CNN from his Columbus chambers.
He is heading an effort that would give the governor and an independent review panel the power to select state judges. Voters could then decide a few years later whether to retain those justices. Alternately, he backs a system of public financing of judicial election campaigns.
Justice McCaffery knows his personality and personal story helped get him elected. An Irish immigrant, he used his law enforcement background to get a spot as a Philadelphia trial judge, where he once famously presided at the small "Eagles Court" underneath the old Veterans Stadium to deal with unruly football fans. The bald, burly judge with an easy grin was elected in 2007, and enjoys his work.
"I'm electable, not appointable," he told CNN during the run for his bench seat. "If I'm elevated, I am responsible to the citizens, not the
governor, not the folks who talk about merit selection," a system he calls "elitist."
The 19 states that held state supreme court elections in 2007 shattered previous campaign cycle spending records - $34.4 million in all - numbers which have increased steadily in the past decade. Nearly $20 million was spent on TV advertising in 2008 for the 15 states that held contested elections for 26 supreme court seats.
The idea of judges running for elected office may seem like a strange concept, but it is the law in 21 states that have some sort of contested system for top judges. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia - along with the federal system - appoint their judges, often under a merit selection system in which the governor gets the final say.
Many states choosing judges by merit also have accountability systems that include independent judicial performance evaluations and retention votes.
Supporters call that a transparent, unbiased tool for the public to essentially "judge the judge" on their record.
The political and financial stakes are enormous - from business groups dueling with trial lawyers over multi-billion-dollar punitive damage awards, to ideological groups sparring over abortion and gay marriage. With civil and criminal court dockets nationwide growing at a record pace, judges increasingly are taking on contentious social and business issues.
"Studies show that roughly 70 percent of the public believe judges are influenced by campaign contributions, and more than one quarter of judges agree," O'Connor told CNN. "This is alarming because the legitimacy of the judiciary rests entirely on its promise to be fair and impartial. A judge's sole constituency should be the law. If the public loses faith in that impartiality, then there is no reason to prefer the judge's interpretation of the law to the opinions of the real politicians representing the electorate."
O'Connor also noted the U.S. alone in the world elects its judges through popular elections.
Reform advocates say judicial independence only comes with public confidence in the system.
"People don't like the notion of cash in the courtroom, any whiff of any expectation that judges can be be bought is just not acceptable in our
country," said Kourlis. "People understand how important it is to have an impartial judge. From your own personal perspective, walking into a courthouse, you don't want to be asking whether that adverse party donated to that judge's campaign."