Gavel Grab

Money for Campaigns, Not for the Poor in Alabama

Judicial elections in Alabama have always caught the nation’s eye,  due to the enormous sums spent each campaign season.

In two recent Birmingham News articles, new Alabama State Bar President J. Mark White has offered an interesting new perspective on skewed priorities. He notes that more money is raised  in Alabama to elect a few Supreme Court justices than to provide legal counsel to low-income people in civil cases.

 The comparison is made in a July 20 profile on White, and in a July 23 editorial column. As the editorial notes, White has pledged:

To change the way Alabama selects judges, a reform he says is needed because our expensive, partisan elections have fueled a perception, rightly or wrongly, that justice is for sale.

To find a way to increase the money available for legal services for the poor. Alabama ranks behind every other state and even Puerto Rico in providing legal services to the poor, White said.

White offered one comparison that linked the issues and put the problem into shocking focus: In 2006, he said, 15 state judicial candidates spent more than $17 million on their campaigns. That same year, less than $7 million was spent on providing legal services for the poor in civil court.

In Alabama, all money for judicial elections and civil representation for the poor is raised through private contributions.

The American Bar Association’s president-elect, H. Thomas Wells Jr., also hails from Birmingham, and he too has voiced concerns about campaign spending in court elections. In a column published in September 2007, Wells issued a call for judicial selection reform.  

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2 Comments so far

  1. [...] Gavel Grab notes that, in Alabama, every dollar raised for judicial election campaigns comes from private contributions. Every dollar spent on civil representation for poor citizens also comes from private donations. Sadly, donations to judicial campaigns are more than double the amount spent to fund civil justice for the poor. [...]

  2. Phil West July 29th, 2008 6:19 pm

    Electing judges sounds democratic but puts justice on the auction block. Merit Selection is better but far from perfect.

    In an effort to squeeze money and political deals out of judicial selection, Rhode Island established Merit Selection for all state judges via a constitutional amendment in 1994. Sadly, governors have attempted to enlarge their lists, so they can get favorites onto the bench, and the legislature has gone on a spree of creating magistrates–from 2 in 1994 to 19 in 2008–who are not selected through the state’s nonpartisan Judicial Nominating Commission. No surprise that relatives and staff of key lawmakers have landed these plum magistrate positions.

    The battlefield changes, but the struggle continues. Justice requires courageous reporters and advocates for those who lack power and money. Thanks to all who are working to bend the long arc of history toward justice.

    Phil West

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