Thursday, June 11, 2009

Buying a judge you can’t even use

Scott Horton tells the tale very well; he always does. Shorter version:

West Virginia coal executive spends three million dollars to elect a judge to the West Virginia Supreme Court. An appeal comes before the court on a $50 million judgment against the same coal company. The judge casts the deciding vote to overturn the award.

The United States Supreme Court, in a 5 – 4 decision, said, not so fast; the judge should not have ruled in a case involving so large a benefactor.

Spot will leave you to imagine who the five were and who the four were.

Give up?

The dissenters were, naturally, what Horton calls the “Roberts quartet.” Here’s what Horton says about the reasoning of the dissenters:

But there may be a deeper rationale behind the opinion of the Roberts quartet. Whereas movement conservatives once complained bitterly about judicial elections dominated around the country by the trial bar, their complaints have gone silent over the last decade, as the Republican Party and its allied business interests have come to dominate the elected bench in most of these states. New York University’s Brennan Center estimates that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has poured $50 million into state judicial races over the last six years. The trial lawyers have also raised substantial sums, but they now lag far behind the organized fundraising efforts of G.O.P.-loyal groups. The result has been a fairly dramatic shift in control over the elected state bench, in states like Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, and West Virginia, where movement conservative Republicans who think and look much like the Roberts quartet have taken charge. One beneficiary of the shift was Brent Benjamin, a Republican insurance defense lawyer elected to the West Virginia court with massive funding from business interests.

Brent Benjamin, by the way, is the judge we’re talking about.

Because of recent decisions by the United States Supreme Court and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in cases involving Minnesota, judicial candidates in Minnesota may now seek and obtain party endorsements, and they may also discuss their view of issues that may come before the courts. There have been a few judicial candidates who have received local Republican endorsements, but none has so far been successful in getting elected.

One might expect the decision in the case, Caperton v. Massey, would discourage groups like MCCL or the Minnesota Family Council from sinking big bucks into judicial races in the hopes of hiring a homer. Let’s hope so.

Incidentally, there is presently no per-contributor dollar limit on contributions to judicial campaigns in Minnesota, although the candidates aren’t supposed to know who made them.

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