The Buying of the Bench

Article excerpt

The campaign fundraising scandal has drawn new attention to the way moneyed interests buy political favors in Washington. But far from the nation's capital, many of these same donors operate unchecked in a venue that may prove more disturbing than the Lincoln Bedroom: the state courts. In the thirty-nine 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 more than doubled every year, increasing twenty-two-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. Upping the ante are defense lawyers and trial lawyers, along with unions and, recently, the religious right (in fact, John Dowless, executive director of the Christian Coalition of Florida, considers judicial elections "the next hot-button issue" for his group). 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 whichever interest group has the most money that year often end up simply kicked out of office. The Nation's analysis of campaign contributions in 1996 state Supreme Court races has found:

[sections] In Texas, Chief Justice Thomas Phillips, first elected in 1988 on a campaign finance reform platform, raised $486,809 of his 1996 re-election funds from corporate defense lawyers; $213,016 from energy and natural-resource companies; and $159,498 from finance, insurance and real estate firms.

[sections] In Ohio, Justice Evelyn Stratton raised $74,885 from finance, insurance and real estate firms; $134,900 from lawyers and lobbyists, most of whom represent big business before the court; and $16,476 from medical interests. The law firm that handled her campaign represents the tobacco industry in a case bound for her court. Stratton received the Ohio Chamber of Commerce's highest pro-business rating.

[sections] In a notorious Alabama race, businesses determined to defeat incumbent Justice Kenneth Ingraham contributed more than $668,704 to opponent Harold See.

[sections] In Nevada, Justice William Maupin received more than $80,000 from casinos and gambling interests, much of it while ruling favorably on a land mark casino case.

[sections] In Pennsylvania, Justice Russell Nigro reaped more than $458,473, from lawyers, mostly the plaintiffs bar, in one of the few cases in 1996 in which they outspent the corporate contributors and defense lawyers.

[sections] 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 who represent them.

"I can't think of a clearer conflict of interest than a judge taking cash from plaintiffs or defendants," says Charles Lewis, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, which monitors government ethics. "That's about as direct a conflict of interest as we can have in our political system. The idea that a judge could take cash from them and issue an `objective' ruling is complete hogwash."

Lewis's opinion is echoed by legal and civic organizations ranging from the American Bar Association (A.B.A.) to the American Judicature Society (A.J.S.) to the Fund for Modern Courts. But these groups can only make recommendations. Effecting change--setting spending caps for candidates, putting limits on donations, providing free advertising--is up to the states. …