Impartial justice needs impartial funding

Impartial state supreme courts need impartial funding

Impartial state supreme courts need impartial funding
By Roger Bybee

August 1, 2001

Special-interest money is tainting the judicial system.

Although we like to think of our courts as fair and impartial, we can’t ignore the fact that it now costs $1 million or more to win a supreme-court seat in many states.

In Michigan, the cost of winning a supreme-court seat has increased by a factor of five from 1994. In Pennsylvania, it went up by a factor of four from 1987 to 1995.

This money generally comes from business executives, lawyers and lobbyists, and it could make even the most unbiased judges vulnerable to the perception that those who funded their elections are calling the tune.

A study released May 15 by the independent National Institute on Money and State Politics found that donors to Wisconsin’s Supreme Court justices were involved in at least 75 percent of the cases handled by the Court between 1989 and 1999. While the study found no apparent wrongdoing, the results reinforce the public’s loss of faith in the court’s impartiality.

In response to these trends, leading voices in the legal profession and public-interest organizations are demanding that we break the link between those writing the big checks and those interpreting our laws.

On July 23, the American Bar Association (ABA) called for full public funding of state supreme court elections. ABA president-elect Alfred P. Carlton Jr. said public funding of state supreme court elections is the only way to restore public confidence in our court systems.

"It can reverse the corrosion that taints all our courts when judicial candidates must turn for campaign resources to the very individuals and organizations that have an interest in the outcomes of cases those candidates may decide as judges," he said.

The ABA wants a voluntary system in which candidates could choose a new option of relying entirely on public funding, or continue to raise money the old-fashioned way — from a tiny circle of big, special-interest donors. If some candidates raised more from private sources, public grants would be increased to level the playing field.

The curse of many worthy reform proposals is that they are released and then promptly forgotten, doomed to become one more dusty report sitting on lawmakers’ shelves.

Let’s make sure that doesn’t happen this time.

State legislators need to take the ABA’s recommendations and turn them into reality. We need a campaign-finance system that replaces special-interest money with public-interest money. That’s the only way supreme-court candidates can be truly independent and freed of any taint of improper influence.

To have impartial justice, we must ensure that supreme-court justices have impartial funding.

Roger Bybee is the communications director of Wisconsin Citizen Action (www.wi-citizenaction.org), which is based in Milwaukee. He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org. or winterbybee@gmail.com


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