Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Electing Judges - with Cash

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Electing Judges - with Cash

Article excerpt

Faced with a large judgment for dumping cancer-causing toxins into the local water supply, corporate interests realize that their only hope to reverse the decision comes from the state Supreme Court. That court is so closely divided that one judge could make all the difference. Determined to squeeze in someone sympathetic to their needs, the corporate interests find a no-name candidate to challenge a liberal justice. And after a high-spending campaign filled with dirty tricks, the no-namer finds himself with a seat on the state's highest court.

If this plot sounds like John Grisham's fiction, you're right. But wait:

Mr. Grisham may have written his latest book, "The Appeal," on the sale of justice, but the fierce nature of judicial elections should give all of us pause to wonder whether - or how often - justice merely goes to the highest bidder. His descriptions of high- spending judicial campaigns are rooted in fact.

The real-life analogy to Grisham's book: a case in my home state of West Virginia. There, in 2002, Massey Energy, the largest coal producer in Appalachia, lost a $50 million verdict in the local courts. As in Grisham's fiction, the five-member Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia was severely divided. And before Massey's appeal reached the state's highest court, the 2004 judicial election would pit a "liberal" incumbent against an unknown corporate lawyer who had never argued a case before the court.

And as in Grisham's book, the campaign was high-cost and nasty. Both sides spent more than $5 million. Massey's CEO alone spent more than $3 million out of pocket to attack the incumbent. The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University ranked it one of the nation's most vicious and costly judicial elections. When all the attacks and counterattacks were over, the unknown attorney defeated the sitting justice.

The Massey appeal reached the West Virginia Supreme Court after the election. The newly elected justice who benefited from the Massey contributions refused to recuse himself. Another justice who had lashed out at Massey's contributions also refused and a 3-to-2 vote along ideological lines reversed the lower court decision. …

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