TO AGAIN argue an old cause, the pressing need for taking politics out of the process of selecting judges, we start by quoting these wise words:
"We all expect judges to be accountable to the law rather than political supporters or special interests. But elected judges in many states are compelled to solicit money for their election campaigns, sometimes lawyers and parties appearing before them. Whether or not these contributions actually tilt the scales of justice, three out of four Americans believe that campaign contributions affect courtroom decisions.
"The crisis of confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary is real and growing. Left unaddressed, the perception that justice is for sale will undermine the rule of law that the courts are supposed to uphold."
And is the writer of these words some wild-eyed liberal? Actually, this is an excerpt of a letter written by retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a Republican appointed by President Ronald Reagan. Her letter provided a foreword to a timely new report: "The New Politics of Judicial Elections, 2000-2009: Decade of Change."
The report, released last week by the Justice at Stake Campaign, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University school of law, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics, provides ample evidence to back up Justice O'Connor's warning. It was a decade of change all right - and pretty much all of it bad.
Across the country, state supreme court candidates raised $206.9 million in 2000-2009, compared with $83.3 million in the 1990s. Money talks, and big spenders - national business-funded groups, large corporations, trial lawyers, and unions - are dominating the conversation. In the 29 costliest elections in 10 states, the top five spenders averaged $473,000 per election to install judges, compared with an average of $850 for all other contributions.
As well as documenting the explosion in judicial campaign spending, the report also outlines related trends that are deeply disturbing, including "the parallel surge of nasty and costly TV ads as a prerequisite to gaining a state Supreme Court seat" and the "emergence of secretive state and national campaigns to tilt" such elections. Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has loosened the rules for corporations and unions in the notorious Citizens United case, these trends are likely to worsen.
Unless Justice O'Connor's words are heeded soon, the voice of the people in judicial elections will be drowned out by the sound of unseemly money changing hands.