Sandra Day O’Connor’s New Judgment: Judicial Campaign Reform Is Necessary

J.L. Sousa/Newscom

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has taken up the cause of reforming state judicial campaign and election systems, writing that the “crisis of confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary is real and growing.” If left unaddressed, said O’Connor, “the perception that justice is for sale will undermine the rule of law that courts are supposed to uphold.”

O’Connor’s comments came in her introduction of a new report which concludes that partisan and special interest groups have grown far more organized in their efforts to use judicial elections to tilt the scales of justice. Campaign fundraising for judicial elections more than doubled from $83.3 million in 1990-1999 to $206.9 million in 2000-2009, according to the report.“We all expect judges to be accountable to the law rather than political supporters or special interests,” writes O’Connor. “But elected judges in many states are compelled to solicit money for their election campaigns, sometimes from lawyers and parties appearing before them. Whether or not those contributions actually tilt the scales of justice, three out of four Americans believe that campaign contributions affect courtroom decisions.”

The new norm in judicial campaigns is “tens of millions of dollars raised by candidates from parties who may appear before them, millions more poured in by interest groups, nasty and misleading ads, and pressure on judges to signal courtroom rulings on the campaign trail” according to the report, titled “The New Politics of Judicial Elections, 2000-2009: A Decade of Change.”

The report highlights some of the most blatant examples of overly cozy relationships between judges and their campaign donors, which can lead to corruption or the appearance thereof. One coal executive spent $3 million to elect a West Virginia justice, and the law firm Beasley Allen in Alabama gave over $600,000 to Judge Deborah Bell Paseur’s unsuccessful run for the state Supreme Court, but never appeared on her contribution records.

Authors of the report said the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case poses a “special threat” in judicial elections, because it overturned bans on election spending from corporate and union treasuries.

“In too many states, judicial elections are becoming political prizefights where partisans and special interests seek to install judges who will answer to them instead of the law and the Constitution,” O’Connor said.

Those candidates running in partisan state Supreme Court elections raised $153.8 million nationally in 2000-09, compared with the $50.9 million raised by candidates in nonpartisan elections, said the report.

On the right, groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers, as well as leaders of corporate giants such as Home Depot and AIG Insurance, and politicos like Karl Rove are active in judicial campaigns. On the left, donations tend to come from wealthy plaintiffs’ lawyers who, according to the report, use state party organizations to conceal the extent of their financial backing of a candidate.

The report is embedded below.

New Politics of Judicial Elections

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