Gavel Grab

Editorial: Will Super PACs Come Shopping for Washington Judgeships?

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010, there’s a real risk that “our courts will wind up on the auction block, with justice sometimes going to the highest bidder,” a (Tacoma-Seattle, Wash.) News-Tribune editorial warns.

The editorial cites a recent Washington Post article (see Gavel Grab). The Post documented surging spending by outside special interest groups in judicial elections nationwide, and specifically the role of Super PACs training their sights on judicial elections, all in a new political landscape altered by Citizens United.

That landmark campaign finance ruling lifted key restraints on corporate and labor union political spending. The News-Tribune editorial points to concern about the ruling’s potential impact on fair and impartial courts:

“The decision provided for no firewalls between political and judicial elections. In states that insist on using popularity contests to pick their judges, the threat to an impartial judiciary is obvious.”

While the Washington Supreme Court reinforced its judicial recusal rules in 2010, “We’d prefer a stronger and more specific rule,” the editorial said. It concluded that ultimately, it will be up to citizens to protect the courts:

“The incentives to buy justice with campaign dollars are so great that it’s only a matter of time before the new super PACs come shopping for Supreme Court seats in Olympia.”

“If voters don’t see the fundamental difference between judicial and political races, that difference will fade. Our courts will wind up on the auction block, with justice sometimes going to the highest bidder.”

Justice at Stake filed an amicus brief in Citizens United, warning that unlimited corporate and union spending would threaten the impartiality of the 38 state supreme courts where justices face some elections. When the court ruled, JAS  said the decision “pours gasoline on the fire” of judicial election spending.

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