EDITORIAL: More money, less justice
According to a newly published Associated Press report, millions of dollars are being spent across the country this election cycle to elect conservatives or liberals to state benches.
We thought the justice system was to be above politics. When states are deciding cases of significant import regarding human rights, the environment, corporate influence and the like, they must be as apolitical as possible.
But political action groups are focusing on state supreme courts because they see them as pivotal to defend or defeat state law. And judges are likely to react to this new and startling trend in ways that could jeopardize their necessary impartiality.
The AP reports that so far in the current election season, a record $14 million in independent money has been spent on television advertisements for state supreme court seats, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School. That represents about half of all the money spent on the races, including the amount spent by candidates.
"State supreme court elections have become increasingly high-cost and politicized," Alicia Bannon, senior counsel at the Brennan Center, told The Associated Press. "Special interests have been putting a lot of money into those races, trying to shape who sits on the courts and ultimately the decisions the courts are making."
Some 52 seats in 27 states are in play on Election Day, according to the Brennan Center's tally.
Both major political parties have tried to gain an advantage at the court level.
The Republican State Leadership Committee is dedicating $4 million to try to elect conservative jurists in many states, according to AP. Group President Matt Walter said the goal is to counter years of judicial campaign spending by trial lawyers and unions.
"We saw a need to provide a balanced flow of information to the voters," he told The Associated Press.
North Carolina is among the states where outside groups are spending to support both sides.
Additionally, a liberal political action committee called North Carolina Families First has spent more than $905,000 to try to flip control of the officially nonpartisan high court of that state in favor of Democrats, according to ad buys tracked by the Brennan Center.
In the past two years, the court's Republican majority has upheld the use of taxpayer money for student scholarships at private schools as well as the redrawing of congressional and legislative districts in a manner that federal appeals courts later struck down as racial gerrymandering, the AP reports.
And President Barack Obama weighed in last week with an unusual endorsement for Wake County, North Carolina, Superior Court Judge Mike Morgan.
Charter school supporters as well as oil and gas companies are trying to influence the election for an open seat on the Louisiana Supreme Court, setting a record for outside spending on a judicial race in that state, the AP reports.
Some of the spending is being used to paint justices as soft on crime even when other issues — such as school funding — seem to be more significant drivers in the race.
That sort of advertising is problematic in judicial races because it can affect how courts make decisions, said Joanna Shepherd, who teaches at Emory University School of Law in Atlanta.
Her research has shown that the more ads air during judicial campaigns, the less likely state justices are to side with defendants during criminal appeals, according to the AP. That could be because sitting justices are worried about being attacked for those decisions during their next race.
"It raises real questions about due process," Shepherd told the Associated Press, "and how people are being treated."
We have seen clearly what money does to politics. It make legislating less, not more, fair. It will undoubtedly do the same for the state court system, allowing those in power to decide cases that are vital to the well-being of the rest of us.
Taking the justice out of our state courts and inserting politics in such a blatant manner — influence isn't brand new to state courts, of course — is another step toward diminishing the voice of the American people.
— The Associated Press contributed to this editorial.