Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor recently remarked that money flowing into campaigns for seats on state courts creates the “impression, rightly or wrongly” that judges are beholden to their campaign contributors. In a stunning interview with Andrew Cohen for a piece in The Atlantic, Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett agrees that judicial campaigns do indeed undermine citizens’ expectations of fair and impartial courts.
Cohen, a contributing editor at The Atlantic and legal analyst for “60 Minutes,” asked Willett to respond to Justice at Risk, a report issued this summer by ACS on campaign contributions to state Supreme Court justices and state court decision-making. In part the study found a significant relationship between business group contributions to state Supreme Court justices and the voting of those justices in cases involving business matters. Indeed the report found that a justice who receives half of his or her contributions from business groups would be expected to vote in favor of business interests almost two-thirds of the time. Justice at Risk also noted that because of recent opinions by the U.S. Supreme Court there is more and more money flowing into judicial campaigns via business interests.
Cohen notes that Willett “graciously” agreed to read the report and then respond to questions about “judicial elections and the role campaign contributions play in them.” (Last year for The Atlantic, Cohen covered the Texas system for electing judges, noting Willett’s campaign-style website.) Cohen describes Willett’s comments about Justice at Risk as “both candid and frightening.”
Willett provides a fairly lengthy response to Cohen, conceding that he strongly understands the “suspicion that donations drive decisions. That skepticism siphons public confidence, and that’s toxic to the idea of an impartial, independent judiciary. I can only speak for myself and say that it flatly doesn’t happen.”
Willett adds that if the Texas Supreme Court issues opinions that are business friendly it is more likely the fault of Texas lawmakers. “My court doesn’t put a finger on the scale to ensure that preferred groups or causes win, but the Legislature sure does. Lawmakers are fond of lawmaking, and the business lobby exerts significant influence on state policymaking.”
Part of Cohen’s response:
The justice is saying that he holds his nose while he campaigns for votes by pledging to be "conservative" and by placing the endorsements of men like James Dobson and Foster Friess (and current Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott) on prominent places on his website. (How would you feel, as an atheist, with Justice Willett on your case?) And he is saying that the decidedly pro-business Texas legislature is more to blame than the decidedly pro-business Supreme Court for the decidedly pro-business bent of Texas law. They have reaped what they have sown.
For on more about money and courts see ACS’s State Courts Resources Page.