Editorial: Campaign Spending Undermines Judicial Independence

gavelcolumnA recent editorial in the Charlotte Observer raised concern over the effect that the rising cost of winning judicial elections has on the independence of the judiciary.

Edward Hinson, author of the article and a lawyer who has been practicing in North Carolina for over 30 years and served on the state’s Judicial Standards Commission, argues that outside spending undermines judges’ ability to be independent and non-partisan and puts many in an ethical quandary. “Since the U.S. Supreme Court has lifted most restrictions on corporate campaign spending, the specter of a judiciary brought to you – or, some fear, bought for you – by corporate money cannot be dismissed.”

To illustrate this argument, the article goes on to highlight individual donors who give large sums of money to elect judges to courts in which they have cases pending. “A jury there had awarded $50 million in damages to plaintiffs suing Massey Coal Co. Massey appealed to the West Virginia Supreme Court. While the case was pending, Massey’s chairman poured $3 million into a campaign to defeat one of the justices seeking reelection. The new justice, elected with the $3 million boost, declined to withdraw from hearing the appeal. He joined the 3-2 majority in a vote to reverse the verdict as Massey wanted. The U.S. Supreme Court recognized the injustice and reversed the decision, citing a “constitutionally unacceptable appearance of impropriety.” But it did so without drawing any clear boundary.”

“To change to an appointive system would require amending our state Constitution, but the effort would be worthwhile. What’s at stake is nothing less than an independent, honorable system of justice.”