Today in a 5-4 ruling in Caperton v. Massey, the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged the harmful effects large campaign contributions have in the judicial system, when it ruled Monday that elected judges must recuse themselves from cases where outsized contributions they received can create the appearance of bias.
This decision shows that the U.S. Supreme Court recognizes that outsized campaign contributions and special interest money can create the appearance of bias in the judicial system.
“The Caperton case is about the conflict of interest that arises when judicial candidates benefit from large campaign contributions and special interest group spending,” said Cynthia Canary, the executive director of Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. “Every person or group which comes before a court deserves a fair and impartial judiciary, and that’s endangered when special interest groups spend huge amounts of money to influence judicial campaigns.”
Caperton v. Massey centers around a $50-million verdict against Massey Energy Co. , which the coal company appealed.
A the same time that Massey was appealing the verdict against it, Massey's Chief Executive spent $3 million in personal funds to support a West Virginia State Supreme Court candidate, Brent Benjamin, who was challenging an incumbent member of the Court. That $3 million was more than the total amount spent by all other Benjamin supporters.
After winning election to the state Supreme Court, Justice Benjamin refused to recuse himself from deciding the appeal involving the verdict against Massey. Benjamin joined a 3-2 majority to overturn the verdict against his campaign’s biggest financial supporter.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s Monday ruling said that Benjamin should not have participated in that ruling.
ICPR joined a national coalition of concerned groups, including Justice At Stake, Appleseed, Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, in an amicus curiae brief asserting that Benjamin should not have participated in the decision involving Massey.
The problematic situation outlined in Caperton v. Massey is not unexpected nor unfamiliar in Illinois. Across the country, the amount of money special interest groups are pouring into judicial campaigns is increasing, and Illinois has been no exception.
States’ Supreme Court candidates have raised more than $168 million in campaign contributions between 2000 and 2007, according to an analysis by Justice At Stake.
In 2004, Illinois served as host to the most expensive state Supreme Court campaign in history, when groups spent a combined $9.3 million in the 5th Judicial District. Two years later, an Illinois Appellate Court campaign broke state records when parties spent a jaw-dropping $3.35 million on the campaign.
These staggering figures show why Illinois must create a judicial public financing system, Canary said.
“Judicial public financing remains the best way to avoid the question of bias altogether, because it allows candidates to run for office without relying on contributions from special interest groups.”
ICPR supports SB 2144/HB 2631, a bill that would create a judicial public financing system in Illinois. Judicial public financing passed the Illinois Senate in each of the last three legislative sessions, but has never been called for a vote in the House.
Instead of creating a judicial public financing system, the General Assembly this year established a task force to study the issue, leaving Illinois’ courts open to abuse by special interest groups for the foreseeable future. The task force is scheduled to report to the governor in 2012.
With the nation’s highest court now acknowledging the conflict that campaign contributions can have on the courts, ICPR urges the General Assembly to take more immediate action on judicial public financing.