Free the Judges. (Going Down the Road)

Article excerpt

How quickly the joy fades. Only weeks ago, reformers were shouting hosannas because Washington had finally passed the McCain-Feingold bill, banning that nasty stuff called "soft money"--the unlimited sums of virulently corrupting campaign donations that corporations and others make in order to buy government favors.

But even as the joyous trill of the hosannas reverberated across the land, the fine-print loopholers were scrambling to scuttle the ban. And lo, along came the scurrilous, anti-reform members of the Federal Election Commission to do the dirty deed. In a series of perverse decisions, the six commissioners have ruled that--hocus pocus!--while national parties cannot take soft money, other entities set up by the national parties can. In other words, the party money-grubbers are banned from putting these corrupting funds in their front pockets, but they can sew huge, new, FEC-approved back pockets into their organizational trousers and fill them with all the soft money they can grab. As Lily Tomlin has noted, "No matter how cynical you get, it's almost impossible to keep up."

Tarheels Show the Way

* This is why some recent doings in North Carolina are so encouraging and important. Last month, after a 34-to-12 vote in the State Senate and a squeaker 57-to-54 vote in the House, North Carolina took a step toward a little less corruption in its politics and a little less cynicism among its people.

The vote was on the Judicial Campaign Reform Act, which makes public funding available to candidates for the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. The governor has signed the bill, so the Tarheelers have become the first state to provide full public financing for top judgeship races. Under the new law, candidates who meet minimal qualifications and who agree to strict fundraising and spending limits can get up to $137,000 in public funding for their primary elections and up to $600,000 for the general election. This is expected to cost the state a total of only about $3.5 million per election cycle, and it'll be financed in part by a voluntary $50 add-on to the annual licensing fees paid by lawyers.

Amazingly, this has received practically no national media attention, even though it is the most sweeping judicial reform America has had in years. Not only does public financing actually succeed in removing corrupt money from the electoral process, but an even more lasting result is that regular people can contend for office again, since they have access to a pool of money that can help make their candidacies competitive. Judgeships are a good place to start. As in legislative and executive races, judicial elections have become swamped with big money, resulting in For Sale signs being draped over the scales of justice. Eighty-five percent of the state judges in our country stand for election, and in the 2000 cycle candidates raised more than $45 million to fill those benches--twice as much as was spent in 1994. This year's elections will set new records.

The problem is not in electing judges but in allowing the elections to be financed by insurance companies, HMOs, trial lawyers, polluters, bankers and others with cases before the judges. …