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Study documents negative impact of campaign contributions to judges

Many knowledgeable authorities have bemoaned the fact that United States' judgeships are more and more available for purchase--or at least appear to be.  No less an authority than Sandra Day O'Connor--not known as a militant reformer or liberal by any means--has urged the nation to seek serious reform of the judicial selection process over the past few years.   The issue gained new traction with the current controversy in West Virginia, where the Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court was the swing vote in over-turning a 50 million dollar verdict against a company owned by a man who contributed three million dollars to the Justice's election campaign. 

The U.S. Supreme Court has recently agreed to hear an appeal in that case, and dozens of former state court justices and judges have filed amicus briefs urging reversal of the West Virginia outcome.  The retired judges feel that this kind of contribution and the failure of the judge to recuse himself constitute a denial of due process and erode public confidence in the judiciary.  [To quote my son, "Duh."]  Their concerns were validated in a recent study published by political scientists from Utah and Pennsylvania.

The authors looked at decisions and campaign contributions in Texas and Michigan--two states believed by many to have the most divisive and politically contentious judiciary.  They found that decisions follow the money in these partisan states, but not in Nevada where judges are elected on a determinedly non-partisan ballot.  The authors shouldn't have been surprised; a Republican activist appointed to the Michigan Supreme Court by Governor Engler virtually boasted the point in a speech given to partisan contributors.

The authors found that businesses are the largest contributors to judicial races, followed by attorneys who donated about 21 percent of total contributions in the 2005-6 election cycle.  In Michigan, the Chamber of Commerce boasted that it would give millions of dollars in contributions to keep the Justices Governer Engler had hand-selected, and according to contribution records, it appears that it did.

The authors of the recent study attempted to distinguish, statistically, between outcomes that result from ideology and outcomes that result from campaign contributions.  To achieve that effect, they analyzed the likelihood of a favorable decision resulting from contributions in situations where ideology did not appear to play a role in the controversy.  They found that a contribution as small as $2,000.00 can have a statistical impact on the outcome.  Surprisingly, in Nevada, where 35 percent of judicial contributions come from attorneys, the authors found no apparent correlation between contributions and the outcomes of cases.

Hopefully, the U.S. Supreme Court's decision will recognize reality and vindicate efforts to diminish the impact of special interest money on our judiciary.  Given the last few highly partisan and activist decisions handed down by this Court, however, we are not optimistic.  Under the influence of George Bush's appointments, the Court has gone out of its way to pursue a conservatively activist agenda.  One of the tenets of that agenda has been the contention that spending money to buy government influence is merely "free speech".  Given that history, it is unlikely that a majority of the Court will step in to criticize the influence of campaign donations--even to the theoretically impartial courts. 

Given that these Justices were hand-selected by a President who championed the influence of big-money special interests, we're not likely to see them "bite the hand that fed them".  After all, Justice Scalia felt comfortable refusing to recuse himself from a controversy involving his hunting buddies.  We won't find reform coming from this "camp".

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