Poll: Public Wants Firewall Between Judges, Election Backers

An overwhelming percentage of U.S. adults believes that judges cannot be completely impartial and should not participate in cases that involve large campaign contributors, according to a Harris Interactive poll commissioned by Justice at Stake.  

The national poll, which was cited in a Charleston Gazette article, said that 81% of surveyed adults believe that judges also should not decide whether it is appropriate for them to take part in cases involving election supporters; instead, they said, another judge should determine if there is an appearance of bias.

These results are important on the eve of a Supreme Court case that will be heard  March 3. Caperton v. Massey is a recusal case in which Massey CEO Don Blankenship spent $3 million to help elect now-West Virginia Chief Justice Brent Benjamin. Benjamin then twice cast the deciding vote to overturn a $50 million lawsuit against the company. Despite repeated requests for recusal, Benjamin refused to step aside, stating that there was no proof of any actual bias on his part.

However, the adults surveyed in the Harris poll might argue otherwise. When presented with the scenario that one party in a case spent $50,000 to get a judge elected, 68% stated that they would “doubt a judge’s impartiality.” If the party spent $1 million, 73% said they would doubt the judge’s ability to rule without bias. In both scenarios, approximately 85% believed that the judges should step aside in those cases.

This public unease with judges’ participation in cases involving campaign contributors was also reflected in a recent USA Today/Gallup poll, which revealed that more than 90% of surveyed adults believed judges should remove themselves in such cases. The survey also found that 89% “believe the influence of campaign contributions on judges’ rulings is a problem.”

The implications behind these poll results are significant: “‘These polls show a clear verdict, and elected judges should be aware of it,’” said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of the Justice at Stake Campaign. “‘For most Americans, cases involving major financial supporters fail the smell test. The public believes everyone is entitled to a fair day in court, before an impartial judge.’”

The full text of the Justice at Stake press release can be found here.

For more information about Caperton v. Massey, you can visit the Justice at Stake Caperton resource page.

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