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Raising Money: Judges on Campaign Trail

By Kyle JohnsonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 13, 1998



AUSTIN, TEXAS

Texas Supreme Court Justice Rose Spector knows that it takes unfailing devotion to the law and the spirit of justice to become known as a good high court judge. But first it takes a friendly smile and a taste for watermelon to become one at all.

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Her somber black robes waiting stiffly behind in the closet, Justice Spector has attended countless barbecues, eaten mountains of melon, and logged more than 40,000 miles of interstate and backcountry roads in a quest to retain her judgeship.

It's the part of the campaign she likes. "It gets you out of the ivory tower and down where the law interacts with the people," she says.

But there's also a frustrating and highly controversial part to her campaign life: the need to fill a never-full-enough war chest. These tensions - accountability versus impartiality - lie at the center of a debate as old as American jurisprudence itself.

To critics, electing judges puts justice up to the highest bidder, as special-interest groups sway candidates' future decisions by pouring torrents of money into their campaign coffers. To supporters, however, it's the only way to ensure that citizens have a say in how judges do their job. Now, as the campaign season nears its climax, it's a debate that is surfacing nationwide - but particularly here in Texas, where the escalating cost of elections has led to numerous calls for reform.

"It's in the arena of big-time politics," says Spector, one of three Democrats on the Republican-controlled court, now running for her second term. "The races have almost become bigger than some state House [of Representatives] races."

Twenty-two states elect their supreme court justices by one means or another, and 17 more subject their appointed judges to retention elections - a yes-or-no vote to keep their office. But critics have singled out the Lone Star State as an example of the unhealthy influence of money and politics on the judicial system.

In Texas

In 1985, justices on the Democrat-controlled court had received nearly 70 percent of their campaign money from plaintiffs' lawyers and other consumer interests with cases before the court. They issued rulings against big-big business defendants 69 percent of the time.

A tide of "clean slate" Republican justices won control of the nine-member bench in 1988 and vowed to clean up the mess, but many court watchers are now calling it an example of "the more things change, the more they stay the same." In 1995, justices received more than 60 percent of their campaign bankrolls from defense interests, whom they favored in 82 percent of their rulings. The ratio dropped to 67 percent in 1997, however.

"Has the court been bought? Absolutely," says Walt Borges of Court Watch, a nonpartisan group in Austin, Texas, which compiled the statistics. "There's no evidence that interest groups have bought rulings in specific cases ... but what they've bought is the general philosophy of the court. So [the justices] are naturally going to rule in their favor most of the time."