The rising influence of special interest money in judicial elections, particularly to state supreme courts, is the subject of a new report, “The New Politics of Judicial Elections, 2011-12: How New Waves of Special Interest Spending Raised the Stakes for Fair Courts.” It’s from Justice at Stake, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
The report finds the special interest money has made many court races “alarmingly indistinguishable from ordinary political campaigns—featuring everything from Super PACs and mudslinging attack ads to millions of dollars of candidate fundraising and independent spending.” The report documents how the “boundaries that keep money and political pressure from interfering with the rule of law have become increasingly blurred.”
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The groups also have released poll results that show almost 9 in 10 voters believe campaign contributions to judicial candidates influence court decisions. Justice is for sale, in other words. And that’s not likely to change any time soon. It’s only likely to get worse. Check out some of the TV ads seen in other states.
Arkansas is not immune. Big money will likely be evident if a contested race develops for an open seat on the state Supreme Court created by Justice Robert Brown’s retirement. Big business is yearning to insure the appellate courts won’t again find constitutional violations in laws pushed by the business lobby to make it hard to sue them for damages.
The Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce has already endorsed Appeals Court Judge Rhonda Wood for the Supreme Court seat, though the filing period hasn’t begun and she can’t legally raise money until November 21. They apparently are confident enough of her judicial views to recommend her no matter who else might run.
I expect similar special interest enthusiasm for a friend of Wood’s from Conway, Circuit Judge Mike Maggio, who’s hoping to move up to the Court of Appeals. Wood and Maggio have been making regular rounds of Republican Party events. She insists this is just coincidental, not outward demonstration of core politics (despite past robocalling for her by Mike Huckabee).
Maggio has had more than a few brushes with shady ethics over the years ( here and also here), but that won’t matter to the Chamber. He demonstrated sufficiently where his heart is by the stunning reduction of a $5 million unanimous jury verdict in defendant-friendly Faulkner County in the case of a woman who died an agonizing death in a nursing home because help failed to heed a hospitalization order. The plaintiff’s verdict shocked Maggio’s conscience. He reduced the award to a mere $1 million. The Chamber will LOVE this guy.
I note, by the way that rules aimed at preventing extended campaigning by judges hasn’t slowed Wood or Maggio. Maggio’s campaign reports show that, though money raising can’t begin until November 21 for the May election, he’s been loaning money to his campaign monthly since July (almost $3,000 cumulatively) and using it to pay a campaign consultant and also to buy tickets to charity dinners where his appearances amount to campaigning. Wood, too, has loaned her campaign more than $11,000 and used it for a political consultant, to prepare advertising, for travel expenses and to buy tickets to dinners at which she campaigns. Personal loans are not prohibited contributions, though it’s an advantage some candidates might not have the personal means to afford. In these two cases, the candidates probably can be confident money will flow in for repayment.
There’s a decided partisan slant to current judicial events here, as has happened in other states, though judicial candidates run in non-partisan elections. The Arkansas Republican Party intends to have a judicial PAC to elect its kind of judges, a development viewed with alarm by Judge David Stewart, retired director of the state’s judicial discipline agency. Would that influence judges to uphold laws passed by a Republican-majority legislature. You could forgive the average voter for believing so.