Justice for Sale?

Thirty-nine states in the US elect some or all of their judges, and as with politicians' campaigns, the cost of running for judicial office is going up. So, too, are donations from those interested in particular legal outcomes.

Consider Michigan's Supreme Court. In the last election, three candidates for that court spent a total of $16 million.

A recent American Bar Association study reveals not only an extraordinary increase in the amount of campaign financing for judicial positions, but also a worrying shift in the public's perception of judges. In the late 1990s, for example, 9 of 10 voters polled in Pennsylvania and Ohio believed judicial decisions were influenced by campaign contributions.

One reason for this is a sort of legal sea change: Increasingly, common law has been replaced by legislative action. State courts have to interpret complex, sometimes vague, laws. And the economic stakes can be huge, which leads, unfortunately, to the possibility of outside influence on judges.

Ideally, all judges would be appointed, according to merit. But the political reality is that many judgeships will continue to be elected. Reforming the way such races are paid for is crucial to restoring public trust. Public financing is one option. It would eliminate any possibility of judges' taking campaign money from individuals or organizations who may have a stake in their decisions.

Fourteen states have full or partial public financing for political candidates; only one, Wisconsin, for judicial. More states should move to nonpartisan, publicly funded elections for judges and start a welcome trend.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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