Judicial Elections on the Silver Screen

By Brisbin, Richard A., Jr. | Judicature, July/August 2005 | Go to article overview

Judicial Elections on the Silver Screen


Brisbin, Richard A., Jr., Judicature


Judicial elections on the silver screen

Benched: The Corporate Takeover of the Judiciary (2005, 75 min.) and The Last Campaign (2005, 129 min.), produced, directed, and edited by Wayne Ewing. Carbondale, Colo.: Wayne Ewing Films, Inc. Available on DVD and videotape from the producer, phone: 970-963-8700, fax: 970-963-6125, email: Ewingfilms@aol.com.

For stark provocation, the legal community and law students ought to view Benched: The Corporate Takeover of the Judiciary and The Last Campaign. These two documentary movies provoke not because they offer scenes of sex and violence, which we've come to expect from most American movies, but because they report a threat to justice and democracy lurking in the contemporary judicial selection process. Although scholars once considered state judicial elections to be "low saliency" events, these movies raise serious questions about the conduct and outcomes of partisan judicial elections in the wake of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's campaign to reshape the judiciary to serve its corporate membership and the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to eliminate certain restrictions on speech by judicial candidates in Republican Party v. White.

Both movies are produced, directed, and edited by Wayne Ewing, a documentary filmmaker from Colorado. Benched, which portrays the 2004 Illinois Supreme Court partisan election contest between Republican trial judge Lloyd A. Karmeier and Democrat intermediate appellate judge Gordon Maag, is also largely an examination of the corporate fight for tort reform to reduce the costs of suits and legal services. The Last Campaign is the story of Democrat Warren McGraw's 2004 West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals primary campaign against Judge James Rowe and partisan general election contest against Republican Brent Benjamin, an attorney whose practice focused on representing employers in workers' compensation cases.

Ewing is no Michael Moore, whose films succeed in part because he injects staged confrontations with individuals on the political right, such as Charlton Heston and former General Motors CEO Roger Smith, into his films. Unlike Moore, in Benched Ewing lets television journalist Paul Johnson conduct interviews and narrate events in a relatively straightforward manner. The only confrontation in Benched occurs at the end of the film, when a large Republican supporter attempts to prevent the filming of Republican campaign floats in a local Halloween parade. Indeed, stylistically the film is pedestrian. Ewing interspaces segments of interviews conducted by Johnson with footage of campaign events and press conferences.

The Last Campaign, however, is a much more intimate, much more human, and, ultimately, much more engaging film. Without narration, the camera follows McGraw as he meets voters, discusses strategy with his family, meets with the press, comments on the campaign while driving to events, and copes with the massive advertising campaign directed against his reelection. The film includes flashbacks to McGraw's 1972 campaign for state senate that reveal much about changes in campaigns and his demeanor. It is a film that conveys a profound sense of the frustrations that confront a traditional judicial campaign managed by family and friends in the age of negative television advertising and big money. In the end, a defeated McGraw offers poignant comments that reflect on his decades of public service and his belief that in a democracy the voters still ought to elect their judges.

The message from Illinois

Benched has a simple story line. It depicts why, as Marc Galanter has postulated, the "haves" come out ahead in suits and judicial actions.1 Indeed, the film describes how efforts by corporations to control the rules of the game become a battle in judicial elections. Especially through an interview with former Illinois State Bar Association President Terry Lavin, Ewing introduces the Illinois campaign as part of a nationwide struggle by powerful economic interests against consumer interests. …

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