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Campaign cash and justice make a poor mix

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Aug. 24, 2010 at 7:53 pm |
August 25, 2010 4:36 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

The Supreme Court giveth, and the Supreme Court taketh away.

The cause of judicial integrity got a big boost last year when the high court ruled that a West Virginia justice shouldn’t have helped decide a lawsuit involving a donor who’d given $3 million to his election campaign. (He decided in favor of the donor.)

The ruling – Caperton v. Massey – has prompted that state judiciaries to look hard at which judges are deciding which cases affecting which political supporters.

Washington’s supreme court may soon require that judges disqualify themselves from proceedings in which big campaign donors stand to gain. The U.S. Supreme Court got it right in Massey, and the Washington Supreme Court ought to adopt the proposed rule.

That would give pause to the people who’ve been pouring ever-larger sums into judicial races, expecting that they’ll have a judge in their corner when their case is heard If that judge has to withdraw from that case, there’s considerably less incentive to buy a court seat for a friend.

It’s hard to understand why a new rule is necessary in the first place. This shouldn’t be an issue. Impartiality is one of the core principles of American justice.

Another core principle is the perception of fairness: Courts can’t merely be impartial, the public must perceive them as such. Faith is the foundation of a justice system; once citizens see their courts as corrupted by moneyed interests, a lot of them would sooner trust their cases to roulette wheels.

In January, though, the U.S. Supreme Court — in another case – saw fit to blast a gaping hole in longstanding restrictions on campaign contributions. By dramatically lifting limits on campaign spending by corporations and unions, the justices opened a gusher of special interest money that is bound to find its way into judicial elections.

Judicial races in recent years had already been seeing big surges of political cash, in Washington and almost every other state where judges are elected. People out to buy court decisions will be gaming any chinks in the Massey decision that will let them plant allies in the judiciary.

All the more reason for the Washington Supreme Court to get ahead of the curve by laying down strict requirements for recusal. If the rules are tight enough, at least some of the special interest money will flow elsewhere.

This is a crucial moment to reassert the principle that justice shouldn’t be bought or sold – that judges should be impartial arbiters of facts and laws, not partisans and advocates.

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