Gavel Grab

Opinion: State Judicial Reforms 'More Essential' Now

State-enacted reforms to protect the integrity of their courts “now…are even more essential” in the wake of a Supreme Court  decision boosting the clout of corporate and union cash in elections, a New York Times column says.

Headlined “Hanging a ‘For Sale’ Sign Over the Judiciary,” the column was written by Dorothy Samuels, a member of the Times’ editorial board. It is one of two fresh and important reports from nationally circulated publications focusing on the impact for states courts of the Citizens United decision; the second, by Tony Mauro in National Law Journal, suggests some judicial reformers actually have found a glimmer of hope after the 5-4 ruling.

Samuels posits that the threat to judicial independence posed by high-spending state judicial campaigns and by special-interest attack ads promises to get “worse, possibly much worse” thanks to the ruling. Her column offers data from Justice at Stake, tracking a dramatic increase in state Supreme Court election fundraising  (calculated at $205.8 million between 2000 and 2009, compared to $84.9 million in the previous decade.)

Samuels quotes from Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote in his dissent that these states “may no longer have the ability to place modest limits on corporate electioneering even if they believe such limits to be critical to maintaining the integrity of their judicial systems.”

Not only will judicial candidates need to spend more time raising campaign money, but an escalating money war could lead to a polarized bench, she cautions. Samuels concludes by quoting retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor:

“To protect the integrity of their court systems, states need to enact basic reforms: switching from judicial elections, for instance, to the selection of judges on merit, or adopting strict rules that bar judges from ruling in cases involving major financial supporters. ‘No states can possibly benefit from having that much money injected into a political judicial campaign,’ Justice O’Connor said on Tuesday. Achieving these reforms won’t be easy, but now they are even more essential.”

Mauro looks at the political landscape and finds some reformers who think the decision may help their cause by essentially “supersizing possible corporate dominance of judicial elections” and making the public see how bad they look, in turn perhaps broadly increasing public support for merit selection of judges instead.

“There is a silver lining to the decision,” said Ohio Chief Justice Thomas Moyer, a champion of reform and a member of the JAS board of directors. “For those of us who have been trying to impress upon the public the deleterious effects of money in these elections, it helps us make the point that we need to get the money out.”

“I believe we can revitalize the merit-selection movement,” said Rebecca Kourlis, a former Colorado Supreme Court justice and executive director of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System at the University of Denver, a JAS partner.

National Law Journal, a subscription publication, also has  other articles examining different aspects of the ruling. You can read the concerns raised about the ruling by Justice at Stake in its press releases; they are echoed by the Times column. You can check out the JAS amicus brief in the case by clicking here.

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