Saturday, January 16, 2010

Study: Campaign donations to judges distort justice system

Study: Campaign donations to judges distorting justice system

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A soon-to-be-published study has found that campaign contributions from corporations to judges are likely distorting the justice system and making it harder for ordinary citizens to win cases against corporations.

University of Illinois labor law professor Michael LeRoy examined the outcomes of 223 state court rulings on cases involving disputes between employers and employees. He found that where party-affiliated judges are elected, employees won 32.1 percent of cases, but where judges are appointed, or elected in non-partisan elections, employees won 52.7 percent of the time.

LeRoy admits that the study's usefulness is "limited" because it did not determine which judges did actually take corporate donations. But "it’s hard to think of an alternative explanation,” he said in an interview with the University of Illinois' News Bureau. "The inference I arrive at is that there’s something about the election process that is influencing the outcome."

Like many other legal experts, LeRoy argues the situation could be made worse by a Supreme Court case currently being heard that could result in much of the US's body of law limiting campaign contributions being thrown out.

A ruling in Citizens United v. FEC was expected this week, but has been delayed at least until next week. In that case, the makers of an anti-Hillary Clinton campaign video challenged the McCain-Feingold Act's restrictions on distribution of political material during an election.

But the Supreme Court chose to take a broader view of the issue, and is now debating whether campaign restrictions -- any campaign restrictions -- violate corporations' and organizations' free speech rights under the First Amendment. If the court rules in favor of Citizens United, it will have overturned all of the US's campaign contribution laws going back all the way to 1907.

The result could "usher in" a "brave new world of politics" where "auto companies that receive multibillion-dollar bailouts could spend vast sums to re-elect the same officials who hand them the money," the New York Times wrote in an editorial. "If Exxon Mobil or Wal-Mart wants something from a member of Congress, it could threaten to spend as much as it takes to defeat him or her in the next election."

But LeRoy says that the impact would also be felt in the justice system, where the ruling "could give corporations, unions and activist groups virtual free rein to run election-time ads for and against candidates ... and lay the groundwork for direct donations to political campaigns," the News Bureau report states.

“It would open up the spigot for judicial contributions and greatly aggravate the problem, further politicizing and polarizing some of these state courts,” LeRoy said.

In all, 89 percent of state judges in the US face some sort of election, and 39 states elect judges to some extent.

Even though polls show Americans generally support the notion of election judges, some jurists, such as former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, have argued against it, saying that politics should not come into play in the justice system.

"It's the flood of money coming into our courtrooms," O'Connor told an audience at the University of Seattle last year. "You haven't suffered too much of this in Washington [state] — but you will, if you don't think about this and change it."

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