Archive for July, 2008

Jul 31 2008

Horror Stories from the Campaign Trail: North Carolina and Kansas

Published by under Judges,Merit Selection,News,Opinion

Sometimes real stories are stranger than fiction and illustrate the problems with electing judges better than any scenario we could imagine. Here are some true horror stories drawn from current judicial elections in other states. We wish we could say this is a one-time feature, but we’re pretty sure we’ll have more horror stories to share as the campaign season continues.

Our first example comes from North Carolina where Bill Belk has decided to get back at the judge who ruled against him many times during his long and costly divorce. How? By running for that judge’s seat! There has been very little news about the race since the Observer article was published in June. But Belk is still on the ballot in an effort, in his own words, “to reform the system.” His claim doesn’t sound convincing to voters, one of whom dismisses Belk as a “rich guy with a law degree but little legal experience” who is clearly running a revenge campaign.

Case number 2 makes us wonder: does running for a judicial election make a person sacrifice the long-term friendships of those who won’t donate to the campaign? It appears so in Kansas, where Reginald Davis, seeking to be a county judge, texted the following message to some attorneys who were friends of his:

If you are truly my friend then you would cut a check to the campaign! If you do not then its time I checked you. Either you are with me or against me!

An ultimatum in quasi-military language? A physical threat? Someone so desperate to win the election that he’ll risk losing friendships? Davis has been ordered to cease and desist soliciting campaign contributions personally. And the text message was found to have violated part of the Kansas Code of Judicial Conduct.

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Judicial elections require lots of money. Belk has it and that’s why he can run for an office for which he is likely unqualified and in which he’s not all that interested, and it’s what Davis needs to be able to run. As these real life stories show, money and judicial selection just shouldn’t mix.

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Jul 30 2008

Donation Dilemma Dogs Judicial Candidates

Published by under News,Opinion,Our Perspective

An article about campaign financing in a state legislative race raises ethical issues that echo concerns about judicial campaigns. Candidate Todd Stephens is a Montgomery County assistant district attorney. His opponent’s campaign charges that Stephens is accepting campaign donations from defense attorneys and law firms whose clients he’s scheduled to prosecute.

Shira Goodman, associate director for Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, was interviewed for the story, and she explained that “Stephens faces the same challenge as those running for judge.”

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Who else is going to give money to judicial campaigns? Not the general public. [Candidates] are going to raise money from people they know in the community and from those they know through work … those who believe they would do a good job.

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Stephens hasn’t broken any laws, nor has he violated any policy of the district attorney’s office. The article doesn’t offer any evidence that he’s done his job differently since he started accepting campaign donations. Yet he’s facing questions about his integrity, based on contributions from donors who may simply be supporting their colleague’s political aspirations.

Judges face an even thornier dilemma when they’re forced to raise gobs of campaign money in order to win elections. Unlike legislators, judges are supposed to be impartial, applying the law fairly, even if it conflicts with their political philosophies. Campaign donations from attorneys, or entities that spend a lot of time litigating, create the perception that money might have some effect on a judge’s impartiality.

As spending on judicial campaigns continues to increase, the ethics of judges are questioned. Decisions involving donors are scrutinized and second-guessed. Public confidence in the fairness of the judiciary erodes.

Merit Selection solves the donation dilemma for judicial candidates. There can’t be a perception of influence from campaign donors if becoming a judge doesn’t require waging an expensive political campaign. It’s time that we brought Merit Selection of appellate judges to Pennsylvania, so that the public can have confidence in the impartiality of our appellate courts, and appellate judges can take the bench without fear of the donation dilemma.

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Jul 29 2008

Chicago Tribune On Judicial Campaign Finance

Published by under Judges,News

In a feature on campaign financing, Chicago Tribune correspondentith the intent of electing justices who will advance or protect their financial interests.” Jones summarizes the fallout from increasingly expensive, partisan contests in Wisconsin, West Virginia and Illinois, and discusses the effect this dramatically increased spending has on the appearance of judicial impartiality.

Nationally, spending for Supreme Court races was $165 million during the 1999-2007 election cycles, up from $62 million over the previous decade, according to the Justice at Stake Campaign. There has long been discomfort in legal circles about judges seeking election to the bench, given the potential appearance of judges being beholden to campaign contributors with matters before the court. As the number of multimillion-dollar court campaigns grow, those fears are taking shape.

As contributions to judicial campaigns increase, fundraising prowess is quickly becoming a critical skill for an aspiring judge. Because the bulk of these campaign funds come from lawyers and organizations that often litigate in state courts, the public is left to wonder if campaign cash has an influence on judicial rulings. It’s time to eliminate fundraising and campaign contributions from the judicial selection process. The best way to do that is to switch to Merit Selection.

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Jul 28 2008

A Question Of Priority in Alabama

Published by under News

Gavel Grab notes that, in Alabama, every dollar raised for judicial election campaigns comes from private contributions. Every dollar spent on civil representation for poor citizens also comes from private donations. Sadly, donations to judicial campaigns are more than double the amount spent to fund civil justice for the poor.

We can’t say, of course, that eliminating judicial elections would automatically mean that more Alabamans would be inspired to donate to programs serving the civil legal needs of the poor. But it would mean that campaign contributions, and any potential influence of donors on the rulings of judges, would be eliminated. And maybe some of that money could be put to better use, helping impoverished citizens get the legal representation they need.

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Jul 25 2008

Reform On Hold In Washington State

Published by under Merit Selection News

After a year and a half of debate and revision, a bill to start the process of bringing Merit Selection to the appellate courts of Washington has stalled in a committee of the Washington House of Representatives. Seattle attorney and blogger Rand Koler, who writes extensively about the Washington judiciary, has been following with interest the progress of the Merit Selection proposal. He believes, as we do, that “our system of government depends on an independent judicial branch, free — to the extent possible — from the influence of lobbyists, special interests and generally the sway of money.”

HB 2150 has support and sponsors on both sides of the political aisle. As an amendment to the Washington constitution, it would have allowed the state’s voters to weigh in on their preferred method for selecting appellate judges. Unfortunately, it’s been sidelined by the House Rules Committee, and Committee Chair Frank Chopp has exercised his power to keep the bill from coming up for a vote.

It’s unfortunate that this reform effort has, at least for now, been tabled. We hope that someone can prevail upon Mr. Chopp to allow his colleagues in the legislature, and the people of Washington, the chance to vote on this Merit Selection proposal.

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Jul 24 2008

Record $6 Million Spent on Wisconsin Supreme Court Race

Published by under News,Our Perspective

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign has looked into the campaign finance reports that candidates for the 2008 Wisconsin supreme court race have filed. A staggering $5.96 million was spent in the race — a record for Wisconsin. The lion’s share of that money was spent by special-interest groups: $4.8 million.

And what the special-interest groups did with that money was problematic: nasty attack ads and phony issue ads that distracted from the real issues in the election.

The previous Wisconsin supreme court spending record was $5.8 million, with $3.1 million spent by special interests. Every election, the spending levels ratchet up. More and more, voters are likely to perceive that a seat on the state supreme court is for sale.

Is the same increase in campaign spending in store for Pennsylvania’s next judicial elections? In 2007, there were two open seats on Pennsylvania’s supreme court, and the candidates raised close to $8 million. That doesn’t even include third-party independent spending, which became an issue when an out-of-state organization poured money into advertising on behalf on one candidate in the final weeks of the campaign.

Public perception of courts’ integrity and impartiality is important, and it suffers when so much money is spent on partisan elections. Merit Selection avoids this problem by taking money out of the equation, and its time has come both in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

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Jul 24 2008

Partisan Judicial Elections Risk Loss of Public Trust in the Courts

Published by under Merit Selection,Opinion

An editorial in the Wisconsin State Journal expresses a fear that is increasingly heard in states where judges are elected: “Highly politicized elections and costly campaigns for Supreme Court seats have raised doubt about the justices’ ability to remain independent from partisan influence.”

This editorial comes on the heels of a controversial high court ruling in a tax case that involved parties who had contributed to recent election campaigns of sitting justices or their opponents. Although there are no specific allegations of bias or improper conduct, the question posed by the editorial reflects a growing public concern about the influence of campaign contributions: “Did Wisconsin get the best, impartial justice it could find, or did well-financed interest groups get the most partial justice their money could buy?”

The newspaper thinks that it’s high time in Wisconsin for Merit Selection of judges:

The partisan influence in the past two Supreme Court elections, and the impact on the public’s faith in impartial justice, are just a glimpse of what’s in store for Wisconsin unless the state reforms the way it chooses justices.

Merit Selection removes fundraising from the judicial selection process and goes a long way to restoring public confidence in the courts. We echo the editorial’s conclusion: “It’s time for merit selection.”

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Jul 23 2008

Not All Polls are Created Equal

Published by under Merit Selection News,Opinion

Not every poll really means what it claims to mean. For example, a new poll released by the American Justice Partnership (AJP) claims that voters “overwhelmingly support the direct election of state Supreme Court justices over a nominating commission/appointment process.” However, looking at the portions of the poll that AJP has chosen to release, it is clear that the poll is heavily weighted to come out with specific results. As Bert Brandenburg of Justice At Stake explained in a post on Gavel Grab:

A scan of the limited excerpts AJP was willing to release show the arguments against merit outnumbering arguments for—a polling no-no. And rather than fairly testing the other side, the poll waters down the traditional arguments for merit selection into bland, less appealing language. It’s also unclear why they polled only 800 voters, compared to the Gallup-standard 1,000 for a national survey.

Questions have been raised in the past by PoliPundit.com and Media Matters for America about the methodologies used by Ayres, McHenry & Associates, Inc., the firm behind the AJP poll. A PoliPundit.com review of various polling firms noted that Ayres McHenry goes against the American Association of Public Opinion Research’s written Code of Professional Ethics and Practice by not providing information about the pollster’s weighting or breakdown of samples.

We know that reasonable people disagree about how best to pick judges, but this poll should not be relied on as an accurate picture of the state of American public opinion.

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Jul 22 2008

Opinion Shifts in Wisconsin to Support Merit Selection

Published by under Judges,Merit Selection,Opinion

Are Wisconsin voters ready to choose Merit Selection over partisan elections of their judges? Deke Rivers, a blogger who writes about politics and life in Wisconsin, says that he used to think that electing judges was the way to go, but now he’s changed his mind:

While I have long felt that public election to the Supreme Court was superior to other methods of placing citizens on the bench, in light of the recent problems that show no signs of ending, I have started to alter my views. It is time to think about merit selection for the Supreme Court.

We agree. When special-interest groups spend millions of dollars supporting one candidate over another, the public’s perception of impartiality in the judiciary suffers.

Rivers continues:

We can no longer pretend there is not a credibility problem with the court. The electoral process is loaded with ways for special interests to almost insure that a candidate with an agenda is elected.

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We appreciate seeing grass-roots support for Merit Selection from people in other states. And we look forward to hearing more from voters in Wisconsin and elsewhere about the impression they have of their courts after hotly contested partisan elections.

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Jul 21 2008

Pointing Out the Problems with Electing Judges

Walter Olson of Point of Law and Overlawyered offers a thoughtful analysis of the problems with judicial elections and the reasons why he is ” not at all convinced that electioneering and noisy public campaigns make a good way of selecting judges.” Olson expounds that:

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Judges seeking election or re-election face constant pressure to “commit” to stances favored by one or another voting bloc. They are asked to stand by while their supporters, strategists and handlers run campaigns on simplistic themes (“tough on crime”) or demagogically rail at cases in which the adversary has taken a position favorable to some unpopular party, whatever its technical legal merit. Worst of all, big-bucks campaigns put judges in a position of having to raise money from lawyers who practice in their courts and from parties interested in the outcomes of litigation.

We think he’s hit the nail on the head identifying the problems with electing judges. We know people disagree about the best way to fix these problems, but we’re just glad to see folks talking about it.

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