State Supreme Court Judges for Sale

The majority of Americans think that corporate contributions only apply to presidential, senate or congressional elections.  However, one of the biggest upsets concerning corporate contributions involves an election that rarely receives attention — the election for judgeships.

Since the 1990s, corporations have tightened their grip on the electoral process of judges for state supreme courts. According to an August 2012 report by the Center for American Progress, money fueled by corporate interests and lobbyists has exploded in the last two decades. The report further stated that in 1990 candidates for state supreme courts only raised around $3 million, but by the mid-1990s, campaigns were raking in more than five times that amount. The 2000 race saw state Supreme Court candidates raise more than $45 million. Furthermore, since corporate finances have such an influence on the electoral process, it even drew the attention of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has now become a powerful player in the process, where in the years 2001 to 2003, the judicial candidates that were preferred by the Chamber won 21 out of 24 elections.

Such numbers have grown even bigger over the years; however, the exact stats maybe incomplete because judicial campaigns are not heavily regulated, which makes it very difficult in identifying the source of contributions. Even though these contributions have heavily influenced the judiciary election, which came about before the 2010 decision of Citizens United, the decision of not limiting individual and corporate contributions made the matter even worse. As a result, a great sadness and shame has come over our judicial system.

The US judicial system is a place where the American people seek justice; however, it is currently interpreting the laws to satisfy the concerns of or to benefit that of its big corporate contributors, which now leaves individuals without money to receive an unfair or bias hearing in state courts. According to a recent poll by the Center for American Progress, 89% of respondents “believe the influence of campaign contributions on judges’ ruling is a problem.”

Upon taking office, a judge’s oath according to 28 USC § 453 is to “administer justice without respect to persons, and to equal rights to the poor and to the rich, and that they will faithfully and impartially discharge and perform all duties as required under the Constitution and the laws of the United States.” Therefore, there should be a sense of equality for everyone under the eyes of the law; however, this principle and oath is becoming more futile by every passing judicial election. 

This explosion of money in the judicial election has led to many Americans’ distrust of the system. However, this is one problem that has a straightforward solution. A solution where each state should adopt the ‘Missouri Plan’, a nonpartisan selection of judges in which the appropriate commission reviews the applications of lawyers who wish to become judges. Then the top three finalists are submitted to the governor who will conduct interviews and make the final decision. A simple fix, yet far from the U.S. reality, which is now governed by big corporations.

It has always been the belief of the American people that corporations and special interest groups should not be allowed to shape laws for their personal gain; however, such belief has become a moot point. Being that approximately 95% of cases in America are heard in state courts, and the judicial philosophy of ‘everyone is equal under the eyes of the law’ is no longer because state courts have now come under siege by corporate money, and this has brought about a great amount of doubt in the minds of the American people regarding their chances of getting a fair trial.

In the words of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who wrote upon her retirement, “When you enter one of these courtrooms, the last thing you want to worry about is whether the judge is more accountable to a campaign contributor or an ideological group than to the law.” Therefore it is clear, we should be worried.

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