A pair of articles in today’s New York Times takes a hard look at how campaign donations are changing the dynamics of state high court races, and court rulings, too. The focus of the first is on Ohio , where judges of both political parties vote with their donors over 70% of the time. A sidebar looks at West Virginia and Illinois , where the paper also draws lines between large donations to winning candidates and subsequent rulings in favor of those donors. Justice Larry V. Starcher of the West Virginia Supreme Court sums it up thusly: “It makes me want to puke to see massive amounts of out-of-state money come in and buy a seat on our court.”
Giving by litigants and their representatives has be a growing practice in judicial races. As long as Illinois allows unlimited giving to candidates for the bench, donors will be tempted to use judicial elections as just another way to achieve their policy goals. And it doesn’t matter if the donations sway the thinking of individual jurists or merely wins victories for lawyers who already think the way that donors want, the end result is the same: court rulings that favor donors on the winning side.
There’s another casualty when litigants try to buy results: public confidence in the courts is eroded. A recent survey sponsored by ICPR and the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at SIU found that 85% of Illinoisans believe that court rulings are influenced by campaign contributions. As a result, Illinoisans are more likely to think that jurists are “political” (70.4%) than “fair and impartial” (51.6%) or “honest and trustworthy” (53.6%). Even highly qualified jurists are splattered by the mud thrown up by the campaigns that get them on the bench.
ICPR believes that the solution is in ending the arms race and allowing candidates to opt into a clean money program. Legislation has twice passed the Senate with bipartisan support (though, to be clear, it has never been assigned to a House Committee) that would address this problem at the Supreme Court level. This year, there are no Supreme Court seats on the ballot, though we’ll be watching the two contested Appellate Court seats to see if those races aren’t facing the same issues. The Third Branch of government deserves protection from the kind of beating campaign contributors are delivering.