14. Political Contributions Compromise American Judicial System

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

Source: THE NATION, Title: “The Buying of the Bench,” Date: January 26, 1998, Author: Sheila Kaplan

SSU Censored Researchers: Corrie Robb and Tom Ladegaard
SSU Faculty Evaluator: Ken Marcus

America’s justice system is being compromised by campaign contributions to judges from special interest groups and Corporate Political Action Committees (PACs).

The campaign fundraising scandals have drawn new attention to the way moneyed interests buy political favors in Washington. Far from the nation’s capital, however, many of these same donors operate unchecked in a different venue: the state courts.

In 39 states that elect judges at some level, the cost of judicial races is rising at least as fast as that of either Congressional races or presidential campaigns as candidates for the bench pay for sophisticated ads, polls, and consultants. A recent study by the California Commission on the Courts found that the cost of the average superior court race in the Los Angeles area has more than doubled every year, increasing 22-fold from 1976 to 1994. In Washington state, winners in 1980 spent between $30,000 and $50,000; by 1995, winners spent at least $150,000. In North Carolina, the American Judicature Society reported that the biggest spender for the Supreme Court in 1988 paid $90;330; by 1994, it was $241,709.

Fueling these campaigns is an influx of money from the tobacco industry, casinos, insurance companies, doctors, and businesses. Other contributors include defense lawyers and trial lawyers, unions, and recently, the religious right. It adds up to a system of justice in which judges are compromised by the time they take the bench, and those who are perceived as unsympathetic to well-funded interest groups often end up simply kicked out of office.

The Nation analyzed campaign contributions in 1996 state Supreme Court races, finding several cases of donations that were notable conflicts of interest. For example, in Nevada, Justice William Maupin received more than $80,000 from casinos and gambling interests, much of it while ruling favorably on a landmark casino case. In West Virginia, Justice Elliot Maynard’s largest contributors were coal companies and their employees, among them A.T. Massey Coal Company, Golden Chance Coal Company, and the lawyers that represent them.

The pleas from the legal community to regulate these contributions are being ignored. The American Bar Association, the American Judicature Society, and the Fund for Modern Courts have all recommended setting spending caps for candidates, putting limits on donations, and providing free advertising. But effecting real change is up to the states. Likewise, changes from election to merit selection, backed by groups such as the American Judicature Society, can also only be accomplished through state action. In merit selection, judges are appointed by a chief executive, who has been chosen from a list compiled by a nonpartisan panel. The judges then run for retention rather than reelection.

In 1996, the National Voting Rights Institute filed suit in Los Angeles on behalf of a coalition of civil rights groups, challenging private financing of judicial elections there. The group says that under the current system, money determines the outcome of judicial races, effectively shutting out those without sufficient means. The Nation’s coverage of this case illustrates the threat posed to our nation’s judicial system by a campaign process gone amuck.