Jun 20 2013

Special Interest Group Money May be Influencing Judicial Decisions

According to a report released by the American Constitution Society (ACS), special interest groups donate a large portion of the funding that judges use to run their election campaigns. For example, business groups contributed $62.6 million to state supreme court justices around the country between 2000 and 2009. This accounted for 30 percent of all contributions, and on average each justice up for re-election received about $62,000 from these groups.

Additionally, the ACS study found that a “significant relationship [exists] between business group contributions to state supreme court justices and the voting of those justices in cases involving business matters.” The study revealed that “the more campaign contributions from business interests justices receive, the more likely they are to vote for business litigants appearing before them in court.” For example, justices who receive half of their campaign contributions from business groups will vote in favor of business interests about two-thirds of the time.

This correlation demonstrates that campaign contributions made by special interest groups may be influencing the decisions of justices. But, as the study makes clear, the ACS was unable to determine whether the justices consciously or subconsciously ruled in favor of business interests because of the contributions or whether justices who are ideologically predisposed to favor business interests attract greater contributions from business groups. In all likelihood, it is a combination of both factors.

But regardless of whether campaign contributions affect judicial decisions, there is a perception that they do. According to a recent poll, about 70 percent of Americans believe that campaign contributions have an influence on judges and justices. And impropriety, whether it is actual or perceived, is damaging to the judicial system.

Fortunately, there is a way to dramatically reduce, if not eliminate, the real and potential influence that campaign contributions have on judicial decisions- by using merit selection. There are no contested elections under the merit selection system, so there is no opportunity for special interest groups to make large campaign contributions to judges or justices.

Uncontested retention elections are used in many merit selection systems, but the ACS study found that campaign contributions in these elections have no statistically significant effect on judicial decisions. Since judges run unopposed in retention elections, they do not have to raise much, if any, money; according to the ACS study, judges in retention elections raise about 40 times less than those facing contested elections.

Click here for the ACA’s report.

Although this study focused on contributions from business interests, PMC is just as concerned about campaign contributions to judges from any special interest.

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