See How Campaign Donations Are Changing the Judicial System

When you think about the corruptive force of campaign donations, you’re more likely to think of a sleazy politician than a judge. However, it might be time to start paying more attention to our robed, gavel-banging friends. Currently, 38 states in the U.S. determine their state judges by public vote, and the money being spent on these elections tells a frightening story.

Though this problem has been going on for a while now, the latest judicial election cycle saw a larger percentage of money spent by private interest groups than ever before. While technically, less money was spent overall in the 2013/2014 judicial races than in the two years before, that can be chalked up to a couple of factors. First, donors generally contribute less money to all races during non-presidential cycles. Second, this past election cycle saw a lot of judicial seats go unopposed.

Let’s be sure not to bury that detail – a growing number of judicial races are now going unopposed. This trend appears to be yet another consequence of allowing endless supplies of campaign money to take control elections. For many would-be opponents, it’s not even worth it to mount a campaign knowing that the other candidate has the financial connections to easily outspend them.

You’d be naïve to think that donors expect something from the judges they give large sums of money, too. Many judges solicit campaign money directly from the lawyers that try cases in their courtrooms, which should obviously be declared a major conflict of interest, but instead is considered legal.

While private interest groups might not be the ones in the courtroom trying to win cases, they do have certain political slants (pro-business, anti-gay, etc.) they want to make sure prove victorious. That’s why they throw their money behind judicial candidates who are willing to publicize their biases rather than fairly interpret the law.

Although conservatives accuse the left-wing of hijacking the courts and bypassing Republican-dominated legislatures with “judicial activism,” it’s conservatives who are currently winning the war in buying judges. Two-thirds of all the outside money goes to conservative judicial candidates, and 70 percent of the top donators are Republican-affiliated groups. This monetary disparity by political party has been this way for the last few election cycles. Because of this uneven spending, expect to see a rise in conservative-minded judicial activism in the upcoming years.

One other big change that watchdogs have noticed is that the money spent in retention elections for judges have increased twelvefold. Retention elections are simple “yes” or “no” choices where voters decide whether to keep an existing judge in office. In the past, very little money was spent on these types of campaigns, as the public keeps on most judges so long as they avoid scandal or some seriously contentious verdicts. Now, though, private interest groups are willing to put forward the money on smear campaigns to eliminate a judge that doesn’t prescribe to their political views in the hopes of getting them out of office this way.

Is there a solution to this problem? After serious corruption at the state Supreme Court level, Pennsylvania is currently considering a reform to remove judge selection from the voters and instead make the positions appointed and merit-based. I’m not prepared to say that taking away the choice from the public is the right call, but certainly something must be done when private interest groups can flood a campaign to ensure judges will promote a specific agenda.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

42 comments

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus3 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Jim Ven
Jim Ven3 years ago

thanks for the article.

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Will Rogers
Will Rogers3 years ago

Wow! Does that country's corruption have no end?

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Ullrich Mueller
Ullrich Mueller3 years ago

An independent judiciary - one more illusion gone down the drain. How long will it take until democratic elections are replaced by brand preferences.

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Jonathan Y.
Jonathan Y3 years ago

This is why the U.S. founding fathers wanted judges appointed rather than elected.

In some of these states the elections for judges are nothing less than obscene - flat-out bribery by giant corporations to get their man in power. Texas and Alabama are almost like 3rd-world countries in this regard. Justice? As if. And we wonder why there are judicial and law enforcement abuses in these places.

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Fi T.
Past Member 3 years ago

For good?

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Shirley S.
Shirley S3 years ago

The American judicial system seems to be composed of "bribery & corruption".

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Sharon S.
Sharon S3 years ago

Most likely the Koch Bros. have a large hand in this debacle.

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Christeen Anderson
Christeen A3 years ago

These days anyone can be bought.

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Carole R.
Carole R3 years ago

Noted and not surprised.

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