Gavel Grab

Wisconsin, Grisham and Correcting the Record

It’s been an interesting spring for judicial elections. Wisconsin just endured its second meltdown campaign in two years, with special interests from both sides pouring in millions to elect their favorite candidates. (We’ve got a fact sheet.)

In bookstores, John Grisham’s latest bestseller, The Appeal, has been stirring up some interesting reactions. It wraps a legal thriller around a judicial election. The prime villain is a CEO spending millions to unseat a state Supreme Court justice in order to get a costly pollution verdict overturned. The action is set in Mississippi, but the issues have resonated around the country, and Grisham himself has pointed to West Virginia’s recent travails.

Recently the Wall Street Journal weighed in. In the process, they took a swipe at Justice at Stake, and included some inaccurate statements. We thought that it would be useful to share a letter to the editor the Journal chose not to publish, submitted by Ohio Chief Justice Thomas Moyer (a member of Justice at Stake’s Board).

Dear Editor:

Judicial elections are causing more concern because a growing tide of campaign cash is threatening the impartiality of our courts. Since 1999, state Supreme Court candidates have raised more than $165 million. That does not include the millions of dollars spent by so-called independent organizations. Many judges find themselves in a system in which they are forced to raise millions from attorneys, partisans and business and labor groups that appear before them in court. As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor accurately observes, “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.” Pundits can wave these fears aside, but after four statewide campaigns for Chief Justice, I know these pressures firsthand. I also know that three in four Americans believe that campaign cash affects courtroom decisions.

A growing number of business executives and others are looking for a way out of an endless race for money with trial attorneys and labor unions. The board of directors of the Justice at Stake Campaign, of which I am a member, is a broad coalition of 50 groups—including leading defense attorneys, business groups, and legal and civil organizations such as The National Center for State Courts and The League of Women Voters. Together we are seeking solutions to these problems. Contrary to Ms. Levy’s assertion, Justice at Stake does not endorse any system of selecting judges. We hold a variety of views on reforms. Whether a board member could be labeled as a conservative or a liberal, we all agree that citizens must believe that their courts truly are places for the impartial, fair resolution of disputes. We also believe that special interest pressure on the courts is the fastest-growing threat to the Constitution’s promise of impartial justice.

Thomas J. Moyer

The author is Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court

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  1. […] learn more about Wisconsin’s recent Supreme Court elections, see this April 17 Gavel Grab entry, which includes a fact sheet on Wisconsin.  Email This […]

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