If you think that judges rule strictly on the letter of the law, you’re dead wrong.
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, along with the National Institute on Money in State Politics and the Justice at Stake Campaign conducted a study on judges and their campaign financing. They discovered a number of instances where special interest groups, big business and corporate lobbyists have spent millions on the campaigns of judges across the land. And it’s easy for these big spenders to hide what they are doing since many states have such poorly written disclosure laws resulting in the public being completely unaware of what is going on.
In one instance they cited, the West Virginia Supreme Court rendered a 3-2 decision to dismiss a case involving a $50 million damage claim that had been filed against the owner of a coal mine. The study discovered that the judge who had the deciding vote had a vested interest in saving the owner of the coal mine from having to pay the award. It turns out that the principle party involved with the coal mine had spent $3 million to help get that judge elected. Fortunately in this case, the US Supreme Court overruled the West Virginia Supreme Court’s ruling.
It also turns out that some of the special interest groups that have been spending large sums of money on judges campaigns are conservative groups trying to maintain America’s values and moral system. Such was the case last year when the National Organization for Marriage and the American Family Association spent a considerable amount of money during the Iowa elections to help oust three members of the Supreme Court who voted in favor of gay marriage.
The groups who conducted the study also said that there are no easy solutions. They recommend more public financing for judicial campaigns, but they also point out that it is uncertain how much if any public financing the US Supreme court would allow.
Another possibility would be to make judgeships an appointed position instead of being an elected position. In some states this is already the practice. The problem with this is that all of the same special interest groups, big businesses and corporate lobbyists would just focus their attention and money at the governors of the states to persuade them to appoint the judges they want appointed.
The only solution I can think of is to tighten up all of the states’ disclosure laws to make everyone contributing or spending anything over $1000 on a campaign to be publicly disclosed. In addition, there needs to be some kind of review process for all judges and that review process needs to be made a matter of public record.
When judges learn that all of their contributors will be made public knowledge and that all of their cases will be reviewed and subject to public scrutiny, perhaps they may start to actually rule on the law instead of those paying for their election.