Aug 05 2015
Political action committees (PACs) spent almost $1.4 million in this year’s primary election for Pennsylvania Supreme Court. That is almost double the next highest amount spent by PACs for the primaries in the last 15 years – just over $700,000 in 2007. This year’s spending figure is almost certain to exceed the previous spending record for Supreme Court elections, considering Pennsylvania is the only state electing any Supreme Court Justices this fall and is filling an extraordinary three of seven seats on the court. While this does not even mention the independent expenditures made on behalf of candidates, it does follow the nationwide trend of bigger spending by special interests in judicial elections.
In the recent US Supreme Court decision, Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar, Chief Justice Roberts said that, while politicians are expected to be responsive to their supporters in a republican democracy, judges are expected to remain impartial no matter who comes before them. According to a 2013 poll, 87% of Americans believe that campaign contributions from lawyers, corporations and special interest groups have an influence on judicial decisions. This perception is pretty easy to understand when you consider the fact that the businesses and interest groups may have a matter before a judge whose campaign committee accepted their contributions or that attorneys may be litigating cases before judges to whom they have donated.
In case you are thinking that it is just lay observers who think that campaign contributions have an influence on judicial decisions, take it from recently retired Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille.
Discussing the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Caperton v. A. T. Massey Coal Co., which found that an elected West Virginia Supreme Court Justice should have recused himself from a case involving a coal magnate who had donated heavily to his campaign, Justice Castille said, “I guess we can say if you got $3 million out of $5 million and you don’t recuse yourself, we know that’s a violation of due process. But what happens between $1 and $2,999,999?”
“They [judicial campaign donors] are actually trying to buy a vote in their minds,” Justice Castille said more recently. “These people gave me a million dollars. I mean, wow, how do you get that out of your mind?”
We’re still in the calm before the coming storm of this fall’s election. However, it’s only a matter of time before an unprecedented amount of spending, much of it from attorneys and special interests, floods the campaign coffers of the Supreme Court candidates between now and November. This money, not to mention the independently funded negative ads that we are likely to suffer through while watching Eagles and Steelers games, will seriously damage Pennsylvanians’ confidence in their court system, which has recently been tested in some high profile ways. The best way to stem the flow of money on its way to PA is to stop electing our judges altogether and to implement a non-partisan system of merit selection to ensure that we have the best qualified judges, unburdened by the influences of special interests.