In advance of this month’s statewide judicial elections, actor Martin Sheen has appeared on YouTube and television, advocating for the reelection of Pennsylvania judge Joseph Cosgrove. That Sheen would support Cosgrove is not surprising: they are apparently old friends and political allies, and Cosgrove evidently represented Sheen for time when he was in private practice.
But the ads are not just an endorsement from Martin Sheen, the actor. Sheen deliberately blurs the line between his real-life persona and that of Josiah Bartlet, the fictional president from “The West Wing.” Here is the YouTube endorsement, featuring a “decree” signed by Bartlet.
This is not the first time members of the “West Wing” cast have used the show’s notoriety to promote real judicial candidates. In 2012, much of the cast recorded a 4-minute YouTube ad for Bridget Mary McCormack, a candidate for the Michigan Supreme Court and sister of “West Wing” actress Mary McCormack. When the ad came out, “West Wing” fans found it delightful: the soaring music, the Sorkinesque dialogue, the important public message about finishing the ballot. What was not to like?
Well, almost everything, in fact. The McCormack ad spoke repeatedly about straight-party voting without acknowledging the dangers of the practice. It was saturated with the most trite forms of judicial slogans (who would have thought that a judicial candidate was “fighting for justice for ordinary people”?). And most egregiously, it promoted a dysfunctional aspect of American democracy — high-priced judicial elections — without a trace of irony.
Stunts like this ultimately erode confidence in the judiciary. Sigh.