States of Justice By Election

Campaign contributions should not influence judicial nominees

You’ve probably noticed. In the months since the start of primary season, America has found itself riveted to presidential polls and caucus results—nearly every news program dedicates at least a few minutes to chattering about Clinton, Obama or McCain. However, as 2008 flies by, there is more at stake than the White House. Many of America’s senators, sheriffs, and railroad commissioners are also vying for their jobs. And in Texas, Alabama, Louisiana, and West Virginia, elective justice seats on the state Supreme Court are being decided as well.

Unlike the federal court, these state-level judicial bodies rely on fully funded partisan elections to decide membership, instead of executive appointment. Single-issue watchgroups such as Texans for Public Justice and the Louisiana Organization for Judicial Excellence have coalesced around this contentious process, directing their attention at campaign financing in particular.

As always, donations do play a role in funding judges’ campaigns. All too frequently, however, judicial candidates will receive contributions from firms or attorneys who will potentially present cases, or at least play a role, in their prospective courtrooms. Of course, this eventuality would constitute a blatant conflict of interest, and tarnish any presumed objectivity in the judge. Worse, this unfortunate effect is not a matter of speculation, but a reality attested to by many in the justice system: According to a 1999 report, 48 percent of Texas judges and 79 percent of Texas attorneys think that campaign contributions have a “significant” impact on courtroom decisions.

These highest state courts are meant to be bastions of political and social order. They function as an essential, stable check on the state’s other governmental institutions, themselves self-interested and beholden to popular opinion—the legislature and the governor’s office. Both of these institutions face one undying concern—re-election—which influences their decisions. And rightly so: these institutions are meant to reflect the interests of their constituencies.

However, the courts serve a different role—that of justice. Justice sometimes calls for protecting the minority against the majority, for the unpopular decision. Where an electoral system is in place, this function of the judiciary is undermined further. Prospective justices have to embrace platform issues, such as “ethics reform,” in order to market themselves to voters. Apparently, voters respond well to “tough” judges, which sheds some light on Texas’s 26 criminal executions this past year. (No other state executed more than three people, leading The New York Times to deem Texas “The State Without Pity.”)

This sorry situation calls for immediate reform. It’s atrocious that this web of interests affecting Supreme Court Justices at the state level has been allowed to persist anywhere up to the present day. How can we ever seek justice when its arbiters and their opinions are decided unjustly?

Rebecca A. Schuetz ’11, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Wigglesworth Hall.