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What comes next?

For the past two years, The National Voter has documented the growing threat to the fairness and impartiality of our state Supreme Courts, which have final responsibility for more than 95 percent of the lawsuits filed in America. Increasingly, our judges are tinder siege from political partisans and special interests.

The facts are chilling. In 2000, state Supreme Court campaigns raised $45.6 million--a 61 percent increase over 1998, and double the amount raised in 1994. Interest groups are spending millions on TV ads to support "their" candidates, and many of these ads are being condemned for lowering the standard of judicial campaigns. More than three in four voters currently believe that donors to judges' campaigns get special treatment in court; 26 percent of judges agree. Only one in eight voters say they have sufficient information on judicial candidates. Most simply throw up their hands on election day, and skip over the court races on their ballot--giving special interests an open playing field.

In many ways, 2002 saw more of the same. Supreme Court candidates in Ohio and Illinois set new spending records. Even in an off-year cycle, special interests spent more than $2.5 million on ads, and twice as many interest groups ran ads as in 2000. Indeed, the number of state Supreme Court campaigns that ran ads doubled from 2000 to 2002. In almost every one of these races, the winner was the candidate with the most airtime.

But there's good news, too. Across America, a growing network of organizations, including many state and local Leagues, is working to educate citizens about the importance of protecting the courts that protect our rights. Two years ago, concerned organizations came together to create Justice at a national nonpartisan campaign to keep courts fair and impartial. (Ohio, Michigan and Florida Leagues are partners.) In January 2001, the League of Women Voters Education Fund inaugurated its Judicial Independence Project, and at the 2002 League Convention, Justice at Stake ran a successful workshop on how Leagues can participate.

This year, PA and WI are holding Supreme Court elections (see sidebar below for League activities). As of this writing, 28 states are scheduled to elect one or more Supreme Court justices in 2004: AL, AZ, AR, FL, GA, ID, IL, IA, KS, KY, LA, MI, MN, MS, MO, MT, NE, NV, NM, NC, ND, OH, OK, OR, TX, UT, WA and WY. Retirements could change this figure.

Between now and 2004, state and local Leagues can build on the past year's activities. Step one is to continue raising visibility--making citizens and the media aware of the growing threat to fair and impartial courts. Last year, the campaign earned national media attention with new polls showing that the public and judges are worried and want reforms to address this threat. It published a study showing the growing infusion of big money, special interest pressure and ugly TV ads into Supreme Court campaigns. It alerted the media to the dangers of the U.S. Supreme Court's White decision, which allows judicial candidates to campaign more like ordinary politicians. And during last fall, when 33 states elected Supreme Court justices, participating Leagues helped the campaign provide real-time documentation of the money, ads and candidate speeches.

Step two is showing that reformers can win. A big breakthrough came in 2002, when North Carolina became the first state in the country to provide full public financing of judicial campaigns, so that judges don't have to raise money. Under this system, participating candidates agree to spending limits in exchange for financing. (Such systems are used in non-judicial races in 27 states.) This year, Illinois and Wisconsin legislators are working to adopt similar plans--using tax return check-offs, lawyer fees and other innovative mechanisms to raise money in tight fiscal times. Georgia's legislature recently created a commission to study public financing of court races.

Public financing is just one of many ways our partners are working to keep politics and special interests out of the courtroom. In Ohio, the state League is working with the Chief Justice and the Bar to organize state leaders to respond to Supreme Court elections that are growing increasingly "nasty, noisy and costly."

Other states are questioning whether judges should even be elected. Pennsylvania is considering a merit selection plan, where would-be judges are screened by a selection committee before appointment and then face periodic retention elections to stay in office. In Texas, the Chief Justice is pressing the legislature to replace contested elections with Senate-confirmed appointments and retention elections.

Better disclosure laws and tighter contribution limits can also help. And, conduct committees are working with candidates to raise the standard of judicial campaigns and curb inappropriate campaign conduct. In 2002, Leagues in 11 states (FL, GA, ID, LA, MI, MN, MS, NC, OH, OR and TX) ran citizen "campaign watch" programs using the Constitution Project's Higher Ground Standards.

Above all, the public wants and should receive information on the judges who protect their rights. Many voters don't bother to cast a ballot in judicial elections. But many say they would if they only had the kind of candidate information that League chapters have been providing about non-judicial candidates for many years. That's why Justice at Stake is working with the League, in Washington, DC, and around the country, to promote voluntary voter guides for judicial races and convince lawmakers to adopt state-sponsored guides. North Carolina adopted them in its legislation last year. Illinois is considering them this year.

State judges are the unsung heroes of our democracy. At every level, from traffic court to the Supreme Court, citizens demand that their state judges be fair and impartial. Court decisions are supposed to be based on the facts, the law, and nothing else. A healthy democracy requires that our courts be independent, so that they can protect our rights and help guarantee equal justice. Justice at Stake's partners educate the public and work for reforms to keep politics and special interests out of the courtroom--so judges can do their job protecting our Constitution, our rights and the rule of law.

With the help of the League and some of America's top legal leaders and political reformers, the campaign is building momentum. ABA President A.P. Carlton has made fair and impartial courts a top priority of his year in office, and the ABA itself passed a resolution recommending public financing of judicial races. At a Justice at Stake press conference after November's elections, U.S. Senator John McCain added his voice to the chorus: "We've got to limit special interest influence over our courts. They are the latest hunting grounds of big money and special interests."








RELATED ARTICLE: Leagues in Action for Judicial Independence

For the past two years, and with generous support from the Open Society Institute, the League of Women Voters Education Fund (LWVEF) has been educating citizens in over 90 communities about the importance of a fair and impartial judiciary.

In the project's third year, Leagues are working with local partners to create voter's guides, organize forums and educate voters via cable television. Across the nation Leagues have discovered that whether judges are selected via appointment, partisan election, nonpartisan election or the merit selection process, voter education/citizen awareness is a key component for maintaining judicial independence in every community.

LWV of Tallahassee, FL, commissioned educational materials, "Judicial Independence: understanding the Courts and Constitution," posted at

LWV of Hawaii studied the evolution of their state's merit system for selecting judges and created the foundation for a public education campaign.

LWV of Idaho found that few citizens understand the scope of a judge's role and the dangers of increased politicization of the judiciary. They are focusing on citizen education concerning the need for judicial independence and the array of systems used for selection.

LWV of Michigan, through their campaign watch of circuit court elections, saw firsthand the partisan campaign style that term-limited legislators running for judgeships brought to the judicial election.

LWV of Minnesota reports that even with the U.S. Supreme Court decision involving Minnesota rules of judicial conduct, judicial independence issues were barely noticed by most Minnesotans.

LWV of New Orleans, LA, put out a Fall 2002 election guide, "From the Courthouse to the Capitol Democracy depends on you. VOTE!"

LWV of North Carolina, in February, sponsored a statewide live interactive cable (OPEN/net) program featuring a panel of state experts: "Judicial Elections in North Carolina"--how they have worked and how they will change as a result of the judicial public financing law.

LWV of Ohio was one of five conveners for a March forum on the method of selection and the qualifications of Ohio's judges--"Judicial Impartiality: The Next Steps." Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Moyer was the lead convener.

LWV of Oregon sponsored a fall judicial independence workshop with a panel including a circuit court judge, law school professor and local trial attorney. Oregon's November 2002 ballot contained two measures for changing the state's process of judicial elections.

LWV of Pennsylvania has prepared voter's guides for judicial vacancies in Superior and Supreme Courts for their 2003 elections.

LWV of Texas had 19 Leagues participating in their campaign watch of statewide Supreme Court, Court of Criminal Appeals and Court of Appeals races.

LWV of Wisconsin-EF's voter's guide for the 2003 statewide elections (posted at posed six questions to the candidates for an open seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. A candidates' forum was videotaped and distributed to all local Leagues for public viewing/local cable access broadcast.

WE WANT YOU!! We are seeking state and local Leagues that already include judicial candidates in their voter's guides OR that would like to do it in 2004. We are also looking for Leagues that would like to hold forums for judicial candidates in 2004. Come to Council 2003 and attend our workshop. Contact Zaida Arguedas ( or Nancy Connors (

Geri Palast is executive director of Justice at Stake.
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Author:Palast, Geri
Publication:National Voter
Date:May 1, 2003
Previous Article:Reaching out. (Out Front).
Next Article:Selection of the president. (League Position Update).

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