Big Business Meddles In Judicial Elections

Earlier this August concerned citizens gathered at the Center for American Progress to discuss the role of big money in state Supreme Court races. This discussion, featuring Justice Nelson of Montana and Justice Oliver Diaz of Mississippi, followed a release of the CFAP’s report: “Big Business Taking over State Supreme Courts: How Campaign Contributions to Judges Tip the Scales Against Individuals.”

It’s become apparent that the control of the judiciary is now in play. While the judges who sit on the Supreme Court of the United States are appointed, many of those on state Supreme Courts are elected, making them increasingly more disposed to influence from big donors in this post-Citizens United world.

One point made by Justice Diaz was that, unlike congressional or presidential candidates, judges are unknown to most of the public and therefore are much more susceptible to negative ads. During state judicial races, outside interests use issues that willenflame the public in ads, and candidate will often lack the funds to push back.

Judicial candidates are allowed to announce their positions, but cannot promise which way they will vote. The only ruling that addresses the influence of campaign contributions on the judicial branch is Caperton v Massey.

Caperton states only that if the money spent in a campaign will affect the outcome of any decision, then the judge must recuse himself from the election. However, the Supreme Court dealt narrowly with recusal and did not mandate it.

How then, in a world where fifty percent of judges in this nation believe that judicial decisions are influenced, do Diaz and Nelson think the problem should be addressed?

Nelson’s response urged organizations to use their free speech rights to get the facts and the truth out to the public. Requiring shareholder approval for corporate political spending was mentioned, but their strongest response was the importance of disclosure.

Money may talk, but when citizens only know what it is saying rather than who is saying it, we have a supreme kind of problem at all levels of our government.


Molly McNab is currently an intern at common cause for the summer. She is a rising junior at Sarah Lawrence College interested in studying International Relations and Government.

 

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