by James C. Nelson, Justice, Montana Supreme Court (Retired)
Justice at Risk, the non-partisan, fifty-state, empirical study sponsored, by the American Constitution Society, concluded that there is a significant relationship between business group expenditures to state Supreme Court justices and the justices’ votes on cases involving business matters. The more campaign expenditures a justice receives from business interests, the more likely the justice is to vote in favor of the business in court cases.
If not created, that bad situation was, at least, exacerbated, by the U.S. Supreme Court’s determination that the ability to spend money is a form of protected speech for First Amendment purposes. From that premise the Court has struck down as unconstitutional, federal, and, concomitantly, state laws which seek to regulate expenditures against and for candidates running for elected office. Most recently, in McCutcheon v. FEC, the Court tossed federal limitations on the aggregate contributions that business entities and the wealthy could spend on campaigns. Make no mistake these decisions apply to judicial elections as well.
For my entire professional life, both as a lawyer and a state Supreme Court justice, I have supported the popular election of judges and justices. I believe jurists should be accountable to the voters. But, I’m changing my mind.
When it comes to judicial elections, I have always believed, and still believe, that when confronted with: (a) a candidate who is simply competent, fair, independent and impartial; or (b) a candidate who is a political hack, essentially bought and paid for by the mega-money contributions and expenditures for negative or misleading TV ads of special and partisan interests, most real people will opt for (a) if they are truthfully informed so as to be able tell the difference between the two. But, the Supreme Court’s decisions in Buckley, White, Citizens United and, now, McCutcheon make it increasingly difficult for state voters to exercise an informed constitutional right to vote – that is, one free from the corrupting, influences of big money and the blitz of negative, misleading TV ads. Like putting lipstick on a pig, the media cookers can make the candidate in (b) look like the Star of the second coming, and the person in (a), like the devil, incarnate.
Thanks to a Supreme Court which seems to believe that big money does not corrupt -- so long as you finesse its giving sufficiently -- I believe that future judicial campaigns will now more likely produce the jurist in (b). The judicial candidate in (a) will not stand a bat’s chance of getting elected, because those types of candidates typically don’t garner much support from big money—type (a) jurists just don’t actively promote the bottom line in their decision-making.