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Campaign Finance Threatens Political and Judicial Impartiality

February 18, 2015

Back in November, we argued that in recent years campaign finance–especially among potential judges–has undermined Americans’ faith in the judicial branch. Thanks to ThePopTort.com, we’ve got more bad news on that front after only a few months’ time.

The legal blog mentions the recent case of Altria, Philip Morris’ parent company, whose executives contributed half a million dollars to a Republican PAC just after the Illinois Supreme Court decided to hear an appeal of a $10 billion verdict in a tobacco case. Weeks later, an affiliated group paid $950,000 for advertisements supporting Justice Lloyd Karmeier, who was elected and later “cast the crucial fourth deciding vote” to overturn the $10.1 billion verdict against Philip Morris.

Karmeier played a very similar role in the appeal of a $1.05 billion verdict against State Farm. This State Farm decision has spun off a separate civil suit, with attorneys alleging that the insurance company’s role in Karmeier’s election basically constituted a “racketeering enterprise” that helped channel $4 million to the judge’s campaign.

Mark Joseph Stern, writing for Slate, argues that the very idea of judges–who are supposed to be impartial parties–scrambling for money is paradoxical. He also draws our attention to the Supreme Court case of Williams-Yulee v. the Florida Bar, in which a woman running for a county court in Florida was “charged with professional misconduct” when she sent mailers asking for “an early contribution” to help “raise the initial funds.” She now argues that the First Amendment entitles her to appeal to voters for money. Stern claims that most followers of the Court predict a decision in Williams-Yulee’s favor, but they have not yet written their opinions.

All of these issues, but especially Williams-Yulee, bring to mind the 2010 Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which struck down a prior campaign finance law limiting corporate and union contributions to political campaigns. This is especially relevant as we near the 2016 election season, which will surely be the most expensive campaign season in history.

As the New York Times reported in January, the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch are planning on spending about $900 million between now and Election Day, which may be more than projected spending from both the Democratic and Republican parties. (For reference, the Republican National Committee and its two official congressional campaign committees spent $657 leading up to the 2012 election.) David Axelrod, former Obama adviser, claims that the Kochs “have superseded the party” as primary campaign fundraisers.

These examples raise a fundamental question about American politics, but more pointedly about the American civil justice system: do I, as a private citizen, stand on a level playing field with the other party if I were to bring a case? Such a balance is guaranteed to us by the Constitution, but as campaign finance becomes murkier and contributions continue to grow, the answer to that question may not always be yes.

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