A new national poll shows that voters in both major parties believe campaign donations affect judges’ rulings and want greater transparency, if not a complete overhaul in states like Alabama that elect the top jurists. More than two-thirds of the respondents in the nationwide poll expressed distrust in how campaign money from special interests affects justice. The judicial watchdog group, Justice at Stake, commissioned the poll. Bert Brandenberg, executive director of Justice at Stake, had this to say about how folks feel:
The American mainstream wants courts to be off-limits to special interest money and partisan politics. The desire for impartial courts is broad and bipartisan.
Our court system was not designed to be political in nature but it sure looks like we now have a system run by politics. There can be little doubt, however, that folks expect judges to be non-political and independent. The Harris Interactive poll, conducted in June, revealed that:
It has been widely recognized that Alabama is the poster child for special interest spending on state Supreme Court campaigns. Alabama has long been the most expensive state in the nation to run for the High Court. Alyce Spruell of Tuscaloosa, who serves as Alabama State Bar president, says that “(w)e are number one in a category in which we should not be number one.” That puts it about as well as it can be said.
Candidates for the Alabama Supreme Court often get at least one-third of their cash from single sources, according to a recent study by Justice at Stake, the Brennan Center for Justice and the Institute for Money in State Politics. In the Harris poll, 69% called for alternatives such as a system in which judges are appointed by a committee and periodically face voters for retention. But the poll failed to take into consideration the hundreds of millions that are put into judicial races nationwide by groups using 527 committees. These committees spend their money for candidates directly, but don’t have any reporting to worry about. This has been the reason Republican candidates in Alabama have done so well in the past several elections.
Alabama is one of seven states that hold partisan elections for Supreme Court, while 14 states have nonpartisan elections. Appointment-retention systems are used in 24 states. Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb and the Alabama State Bar have pushed for an appointment-retention system. Each has submitted bills calling for incremental changes. The legislation was killed every time the bills were introduced. Alyce says the State Bar is changing tactics, combining public education and consensus-building and that “the business sector, political parties, our profession and the public must find a unified approach.” I totally agree with Alyce and will support any legislation offered that will fix a broken system.
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