Judicial Campaign Contributions Seen as 'Justice for Hire'

By Jeff Johnson | July 7, 2008 | 8:29 PM EDT

Capitol Hill (CNSNews.com) - A group that supported the controversial campaign finance law changes passed by Congress earlier this year, now says campaign contributions to elected state judges have created at least the appearance of "justice for hire." The only way to correct the problem, the group says, is to end judicial elections.

Charles Kolb, president of the Committee for Economic Development (CED), says it is bad enough that political contributions have increasingly corrupted state-level campaigns for legislative and executive branch positions.

"If our state judiciary becomes hostage to money, we have, in my view, an even worse situation facing the country," he said. "The independence of our judicial system is essential to a well-functioning democracy."

The group pointed out in its report entitled, "Justice for Hire: Improving Judicial Selection," that 87 percent of the more than 30,000 state-level judges face either contested elections, where they must campaign against opponents, or retention elections, where voters decide whether or not they get to keep their jobs.

Derek Bok, chairman of Common Cause and co-chairman of the CED subcommittee that wrote the report, says that system has forced judicial candidates to accept money from lawyers whose cases they will probably eventually hear in court.

"The amounts of money involved, and the partisanship in these elections, have really gotten ... dramatically worse in the last 15 years," he said. "People need to be awakened to that fact before the system gets even worse than it is at present, and presents an even greater threat to the integrity and independence of the judiciary."

The solution, Bok said, is simple.

"Our preferred method would be to do away with elections entirely and establish a 'non-partisan, independent' judicial nominating committee, which would be responsible for recruiting, reviewing, and ultimately recommending a list of approved candidates from which ... the governor would make a selection," he explained.

CED acknowledges that the prospect of taking the vote away from the people is not likely to be very popular with said people. So, the report includes a number of suggestions for improving the judicial elections process:

    Judicial elections should be truly non-partisan, with political parties having no involvement in the selection of candidates;
    Terms of office for state appellate judges should be lengthened to no less than six years, with 10-year minimum terms for justices on the states' highest courts.
    Judicial election campaigns should be fully publicly funded;
    All money spent in contributions to judicial candidates, or advocacy for or against them by third parties should be subject to full and immediate disclosure; and
    States where judges are elected should create "judicial evaluation commissions" to improve the information available to voters.

Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Phillips, who is elected, supports the idea of initially appointing judges, but having them stand for retention elections and be subject to removal for incompetence.

"If people have enough information, they will make the right decision, they'll choose the best judge," he said. "Getting the people enough information to make that intelligent choice is such an extremely difficult process that I end up coming down the other way and saying, have these elections be only for the last resort, to remove the worst offenders."

Even though Phillips does not believe judges' decisions are influenced by campaign contributions, he does favor a form of public funding for states that choose contested elections.

"I call it 'lawyer funding,'" he explains of his proposal for a "lawyer occupation tax" to fund judicial campaigns. "We're not spending enough for the voters to really know who we are and what our credentials are ... and the people wouldn't feel like they've been hurt because it's just the lawyers' [money] after all, and the lawyers wouldn't have to give any campaign contributions."

Alfred Carlton, president-elect of the American Bar Association, believes there is enough concern about the influence of money in judicial elections that some changes will have to be made. He cited the CED report as a good starting point.

"The report reflects the possibilities of finding common ground among many constituencies and groups on issues affecting judicial selection in the states," said Carlton. "We intend to push forward next year, in a very forceful way, to find that common ground."

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