IS JUSTICE FOR SALE IN STATE COURTS?

There is widespread recognition that a fair and impartial judiciary is essential to the maintenance of public trust and confidence in our court system and our democracy. In 39 states, at least some judges are elected; in aggregate, 87% of state judges nationwide run in elections. (In some states and for the federal judiciary, judges are appointed and not elected.)

The impartiality and integrity of our state courts is critical because they handle the vast majority of criminal and civil cases in the U.S. For example, 94% of felony convictions occur in state courts, including 99% of rape cases and 98% of murder cases.

The rapidly growing spending on judicial campaigns brings with it the potential for money to influence (or appear to influence) judges’ decisions and to create conflicts of interest. Elected judges are routinely raising campaign funds from and benefiting from spending by those who will appear before them in court as lawyers or parties in a case.

Between 2000 and 2009, over $200 million was spent on elections for state supreme court justices in 22 states. This was more than double the $83 million spent in the previous decade. This growth in spending appears to be accelerating and has been exacerbated by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United and related decisions, which allow unlimited contributions to and spending by supposedly independent groups, including corporations.

As with other elected offices, spending by outside, supposedly independent groups is growing in judicial races. Furthermore, the frequency of very large contributions and high levels of spending by a small number of wealthy individuals and organizations is increasing. For example, in the 29 most expensive judicial elections in the decade from 2000 to 2009, the top five spenders averaged $473,000 while all others averaged $850. [1] As with other races, much of the outside spending is on negative advertising. Negative advertising tends to undermine trust in elected officials and to reduce voter turnout. Outside spending also fuels an arms race with special interests spending more and more to out-spend competing interests.

As a result, there is the appearance, if not the actuality, that campaign money is influencing elected judges’ actions. As retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said, “In too many states, judicial elections are becoming political prize fights where partisans and special interests seek to install judges who will answer to them instead of the law and the Constitution.” [2] For example, in Alabama, the primary sources of campaign funds for supreme court candidates have been businesses and trial lawyers as they battle each other over tort reform. In 2006, candidates for the chief justice position raised $8.2 million. (Tort reform refers to changes in the laws governing the ability of victims to get court-ordered compensation for damages or personal injury.)

My previous post highlighted a case before the Wisconsin Supreme Court where a 4 to 2 decision found that Governor Walker and his campaign had not engaged in illegal coordination with two supposedly independent business groups that spent millions of dollars supporting his campaign. Two justices, who participated and voted with the majority, had been asked to recuse themselves because the two groups whose support of Walker was at issue had also spent millions of dollars on their campaigns. They refused to recuse themselves and this case is now being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

West Virginia is another state where business interests are spending millions of dollars on judges’ elections and where a state supreme court justice refused to recuse himself in a case where he had a conflict of interest. The case is Caperton vs. Massey where a jury verdict that had ordered Massey Energy Co. to pay $50 million was being appealed. Massey’s CEO, Don Blankenship, knowing the case was going to the court, spent $3 million supporting the election of Justice Brent Benjamin in 2004. This was over 60% of the total spending on Benjamin’s campaign. After he won the election, he was one of the majority votes in a 3 to 2 decision that overturned the $50 million award against Massey. He refused to recuse himself. This was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and it ruled in June, 2009, that Justice Benjamin had to recuse himself because of the “serious risk of actual bias.” [3]

In May 2016, Justice Benjamin was up for re-election. Outside groups spent $3 million in the election. The biggest spender, at $2 million, was the Washington, D.C., based Republican State Leadership Committee, despite the fact that the election was supposedly non-partisan. It spent its money in support of the eventual winner, Beth Walker, who won with 39.5% of the vote in a five-person election. In addition, various outside business groups spent almost $500,000 supporting her. This $2.5 million in outside spending was many times the $200,000 she raised for her campaign and still many times what she may have spent including $500,000 in loans from her husband. [4]

In summary, judges are facing unprecedented challenges to their ability to deliver fair, impartial justice that is free from the influence of special interests and partisan pressures. A major driver of the threat to judicial integrity is growing campaign spending, including the rapid increase in unlimited spending by outside groups and individuals.

My next post will take a look at the effects of judicial elections on criminal cases. After that, I will present some policy solutions to the problem of elections and campaign financing that can undermine a fair and impartial judiciary.

[1]       Sample, J., Skaggs, A., Blitzer, J., & Casey, L., 2010, “The new politics of judicial elections 2000-2009,” Justice at Stake (http://www.justiceatstake.org/media/cms/JASNPJEDecadeONLINE_8E7FD3FEB83E3.pdf)

[2]       Justice at Stake, 2016, “Money & Elections,” Justice at Stake (http://www.justiceatstake.org/issues/state_court_issues/money-and-elections/)

[3]       Brennan Center for Justice, 6/8/09, “Supreme Court reverses decision in Caperton vs. Massey,” Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law (https://www.brennancenter.org/legal-work/caperton-v-massey)

[4]       Brennan Center for Justice, 5/6/16, “Outside spending in West Virginia Supreme Court race nears $3 million,” Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law (https://www.brennancenter.org/press-release/outside-spending-west-virginia-supreme-court-race-nears-3-million)

Advertisements

Comments and discussion are encouraged

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: