Saturday, November 29, 2008

Buying "Justice": Campaign Finance and Judicial Elections

Earlier today, I posted an entry analyzing some pretty salacious advertising in judicial election contests. The advertisements threaten the independence of the judiciary because they demonize judges who protect the civil liberties of unpopular individuals. The commercials also use disgruntled parties who make specious claims about judicial candidates in order to embarrass them and harm their re-election prospects.

Another issue that threatens judicial independence concerns campaign financing. Donations finance judicial election contests just like all other political races. A host of ethical concerns arise in this setting as well, and they probably carry even greater force.

The Supreme Court will take up the issue of money and judicial elections later this term when it decides Caperton v. Massey. In Caperton, Justice Brent Benjamin of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals refused to recuse himself in a case in which the defendant contested a 50 million dollar judgment against it. The defendant's CEO personally donated 3 million dollars to Benjamin's campaign. This represents 60% of the total funds donated to Benjamin.

Shockingly (do not let the sarcasm escape you), Benjamin sided with the defendant and the court overturned the verdict by a vote of 3-2. Because of the closeness of the ruling, Benjamin's vote truly mattered. And it only cost 3 million dollars, which, compared with the magnitude of the jury verdict, sounds like a great investment. But the investment is "great" only when ethical and rights issues fall out of the equation.

This case represents an egregious example of "buying" influence, and if the Supreme Court does not reverse it, the implications for poor plaintiffs seeking civil justice are astounding. The American Bar Association and other groups interested in civil justice have urged the Court to reverse the ruling. The ABA does not believe that contributions to judicial campaigns are inherently unethical, but it argues that at some point, the magnitude of a donation can cross the line and can amount to bought justice. The Court will likely decide this case some time next year.

Related reading on Dissenting Justice: Campaigning for Court.

For media commentary, see: News article on Caperton v Massey.

For legal commentary (and other issues) see: Brennan Center web page on Caperton v Massey. Disclaimer: the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University prepared this website. The Brennan Center has filed a brief urging the Court to reverse the decision.

1 comment:

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