You’d think that paying off judges would be a gross abuse of the justice system, but as it stands, that is just common procedure. Increasingly, corporate entities are funding the campaigns of judges at the state level, which, as the New Yorker points out, leads to a series of potential problems.
Currently, the general population votes for the highest-level judges in 38 states, and that number increases for lower-level courts. This fact is especially significant considering that a whopping 95% of American court cases are decided in state courts.
If you think some voters are ill informed when it comes to selecting a politician, just think how much less they know about the judges they are electing – the ballots do not even come with a party affiliation. As a result, judges obtain their position not on their expertise and ethics, but on running an effective campaign, which requires a lot of money. And it probably goes without saying that our corporation friends provide easier, more reliable funds than private citizens.
The conflict of interest resulting from this system is astounding. While judges should be beholden to the law, it seems likely that – since corporate entities are bankrolling the judges – they may feel obligated to interpret the law in a way that favors those who are helping to keep them in a position of power.
To be clear, this problem has been around long before Citizens United. Due to a shocking lack of regulations on judicial campaign contributions, money has had a significant impact for a long time. In the 1980s, there was a more evenly split divide amongst contributions to Democratic and Republican judges. Predictably, however, deep pockets won out, leading to a surge in conservative judges on the state level, particularly in southern states.
By 2000, state Supreme Court justices were spending 15 times more on their campaigns than they did just 10 years earlier. In the past decade, the amount of non-politician-focused political ads funded by corporate interests topped 90%. In fact, two years ago, conservative groups spent nearly four times the amount of money that liberal groups allocated toward state judicial elections.
Evidently, the only state in the country with reasonable public financing for judicial campaigns is North Carolina. However, even North Carolina has taken a hit thanks to the more recent Citizens United decision. This year, a Super PAC intervened with seemingly bottomless pockets to ensure a conservative judge would be elected to the state’s Supreme Court to maintain a right-leaning majority.
Perhaps the solution to the money problem is changing how judges are appointed. The twelve states that do not elect their highest judges employ a variety of different approaches. In California and New Jersey, the governor appoints judges to the Supreme Court, while a few other states including Missouri task non-partisan committees with coming up with judicial nominations to be presented to the governor.
Following her retirement from the U.S. Supreme Court, former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has made judicial reform a priority. “When you enter one of these courtrooms, the last thing you want to worry about is whether the judge is more accountable to a campaign contributor or an ideological group than to the law,” said O’Connor.
At least awareness of the problem is growing. In one poll, 89% of people expressed concern that campaign money was influencing judicial rulings. However, until something is done to change how the system functions, expect inevitable corporate favoritism in the decisions judges hand down.
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