Tort reform is hardly a headline-grabbing subject, and it’s not all that often that a high-profile news outlet runs a thorough and insightful piece on the subject. The magazine Mother Joneshas done so, however, in an article targeting interest groups’ financing of judicial elections called “Is Your Judge for Sale?” (thanks to civil justice blog ThePopTort.com for pointing us in its direction).
This blog has covered campaign donations (back in 2011), but matters have gotten worse since then. This is largely due to the influence of the United States Chamber of Commerce (about whom we have also written), which, despite its official-sounding name is actually a pro-business lobbying group that represents the interests of some of America’s largest corporations. The Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group, reports that the Chamber has spent over $1.1 billion on lobbying since 1998, which is more than three times what the second-highest spender (the American Medical Association) doled out over the same sixteen-year period.
Andy Kroll, writing in Mother Jones, provides some background on judicial campaign finance: “[S]tate judges around the country often raise six-and seven-figure sums, mount statewide campaigns, and fend off attack ads from groups that don’t disclose their donors. This trend has escalated over the last decade and a half as partisan groups realize that donating to judges can get them more influence, for less money, than bankrolling legislative campaigns. After all, the donors often end up with business before the very judges they are helping elect. These are also the judges that most citizens who interact with the system have to face.”
Kroll closes the first section of his piece with a provocative question: “Can Americans still trust in getting their fair day in court?” The evidence suggests that the answer is no.
Over the past fourteen years, the Chamber of Commerce has dumped “tens of millions of dollars” into judicial races across the country, supporting candidates likely to oppose so-called “frivolous lawsuits” (including class action, product liability, and medical malpractice cases). It is also responsible for the largest single contribution to a judicial race in history–$4.4 million in an Ohio Supreme Court race in 2000. This is part of a larger effort to limit private citizens’ access to the courts in cases against large corporations.
Mother Jones points out that a recent study conducted at Emory University concluded that “the more campaign money justices received from business interests, the more likely they were to vote in favor of businesses appearing before them.” Though we may have reached this conclusion intuitively, it’s worth noting that this is becoming more and more apparent to individual citizens. In fact, a poll by the nonprofit group Justice at Stake established that “87 percent of Americans believe that campaign donations could influence court rulings.” Findings like these are damning. They suggest a serious loss of faith in the impartiality of our judicial system, but even more than that, they reflect the view that a private citizen may have the deck stacked against him or her in court.
Kroll ends his article with the poignant opinions of Randy Shepard, “the longest-serving state chief justice in American history,” who retired from Indiana’s (rather conservative) bench in 2012. The stakes in this debate are huge, and our constitutionally-protected “promise of due process and an impartial court” is in question.
He asks, “Do I as a citizen walk into that courtroom standing on a relatively level playing field? Say you’re going before a trial judge making a decision about the custody of your grandchildren, and your evil son-in-law or daughter-in-law had made a very large contribution to the judge. How would you feel about that? You wouldn’t feel very optimistic, would you?”