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Mike Bryant
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Campaign Contributions To Judges: What Do They Mean?

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Here in Minnesota, we have seen a couple of contested judicial races, but nothing on the level of the multi million dollar slugfests that have taken place in other states. Clearly, special interest groups have attempted to pack state supreme courts ( in some cases successfully) to promote an agenda. The American Tort Reform Association and the American Justice Partnership, a wing of the National Association of Manufacturers, pumped more than $700,000 into the 2008 Illinois judicial elections .

I’ve given to candidates in district elections and statewide. As a member of the Certified Trial Lawyers, I have participated in discussions of endorsements of judges who we hope will let us try our cases. Doing both civil and criminal trials, it’s the juries who decide the fact issues, so judges who keep things moving and rule evenly are really what my clients need.

Presently, there is a case heading to the United States Supreme court that could again change the landscape for judicial elections. The last time being Republican Party of Minnesota v. White when the Supreme Court struck down the Minnesota canon of judicial ethics that barred candidates from announcing their views on disputed legal and political issues. In Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co the Court will be faced with the question of whether a West Virgina Supreme Court of Appeals Justice has to recuse himself from an appeal in which the president of the company is seeking reversal of a $50 million jury verdict, was the largest contributor — $3 million in direct and indirect contributions — to the judge’s campaign. To the general public, this smells. A Harris Interactive poll found that "an overwhelming majority of people…doubted that elected judges can be impartial in cases that involve major campaign donors."

The Caperton court’s decision could have a number of implications. Will it bar all contributors from appearing before the campaigning judge? That might make some sense, but what about when it’s the U S Chamber giving away a pile of money? They don’t really appear as litigants directly. Maybe, there is an amount that could be the bar? But, that number would be arbitrary at best. Or the Court , like White , might just open up the door to even greater problems with these elections.

Judges face way too many different issues, to be elected on single platforms or with plans to rewrite justice. I personally like the idea of retention elections or simple appointments. It will save money and it gives us the best shot at judges free of special interests. But, we will have to see what the unelected and offended if they are asked personal questions, members of the United States Supreme Court say about it.