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Justice O'Connor: "We put cash in the courtooms and it's just wrong."

  At a conference last week held in New York City, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor stated unequivocally that something must be done about special interests "buying" state judicial seats.  In prior blog entries, we have pointed to this problem and identified the Chamber of Commerce, in particular, as a "purchaser" of "justice".

This problem is a significant one in Michigan, where Governor Engler hand-selected a majority of the Supreme Court for their anti-consumer, pro-insurer bias (people like the chief counsel of AAA, for example).  This majority has embarked on an anti-victim and anti-consumer crusade, overturning decades of law to the advantage of insurers and businesses.  Michigan is not alone, however.  In Wisconsin, the first African American Justice was recently defeated after what the New York Times described as a "nasty, racially charged campaign", where his opponent was heavily subsidized by a barrage of TV advertising paid for by the state's "largest business lobby".

In West Virginia, a $50 million dollar verdict against the Massey Energy coal company was over-turned on appeal--but then created significant embarrassment when vacation videos were aired, showing the Chief Justice of the Court vacationing in Monte Carlo with Massey's chief executive--while the appeal was pending before the Court.  The Chief Justice then recused himself and the case was set for re-hearing.   Unfortunately, another justice who had publicly repudiated Massey also recused himself from the re-hearing, and the verdict was again overturned--with the deciding vote coming from Justice Brent Benjamin--who declined to recuse himself despite the fact that the Massey chief executive spent more than 3 million dollars on his election.

We have the right to expect that judges' decisions, while flavored by personal life experiences, will be shaped by the facts before them and not their campaign contribution ledger sheets.  We should be able to expect that our judges will not be beholden to anyone--whether rich or poor, well-connected or disconnected.  Even ignoring the issue of fairness, this kind of influence purchasing is deadly for a society.  How long can we expect ordinary people to respect the actions and decisions of our courts if the public perception is that litigants have purchased the courts' goodwill?  When a broad swath of the public begins to consider our courts as merely an organ for the rich to maintain advantage, we lose the underlying respect for the power of the courts which is essential to a nation of law.

Ben Franklin once said, in essence, that "democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner:  liberty is giving the sheep a weapon in advance of the vote".  There can be no liberty for the common man or woman in this country, if the ultimate arbiter of disputes is "armed" only to protect the wealthy.

Thompson O’Neil, P.C.
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Traverse City, Michigan 49684
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