From 2000 to 2007, some $167 million was spent on judicial campaigns—more than twice as much as in the entire previous decade. Now, advocates of judicial reform are worried that the influx of special-interest money is getting in the way of citizens’ rights to a fair trial. “If you were in court and found out that your opponent was one of the biggest contributors to the judge, would you be happy?” asks Charles W. Hall of Justice at Stake, a nonpartisan group that advocates for judicial reforms. “I think almost all Americans would say, ‘I want a different judge.’”
Should a judge be allowed to hear a case involving a campaign contributor?
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In West Virginia in 2004, the CEO of a coal company spent $3 million to help Brent D. Benjamin’s judicial campaign. When the company had a case before the court, Benjamin declined to recuse himself—to step aside—and instead cast a deciding vote in favor of the CEO’s company. The case has worked its way up to the Supreme Court, which is expected to make a ruling this spring. Meanwhile, jurists and legal scholars across the country are locked in debate. One group of state supreme court justices argued in a legal brief that the “strong presumption of integrity” of elected judges should override apparent conflicts of interest. But others say that the current system undermines the public’s faith in the integrity of the court.