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Thursday, February 26, 2009

USA TODAY on Court Corruption, "Can Money Obstruct Justice?"

Can money obstruct justice?
USA TODAY by Tony Mauro - February 26, 2009

Cash-heavy judicial elections could be leaving the court system vulnerable to miscarriages of justice. Enter the U.S. Supreme Court.

The noble promise engraved above the entrance to the Supreme Court is "Equal Justice Under Law." It is not: "Justice Goes to the Highest Bidder." Yet that is what many Americans think is happening in their courts. With businesses and interest groups pouring more and more money into state judicial elections — more than $34 million for state supreme court races alone in 2006 — the public can't be faulted for concluding that donors are getting what they pay for, namely favorable treatment from judges who are supposed to be impartial. Advocates for reform are hoping that a case that comes before the U.S. Supreme Court next week will address this growing concern.

Judicial elections used to be mostly genteel affairs, with lawyers winning election based on local reputation and maybe an ad or two in the hometown newspaper. Now, these races have been infected with high-priced campaigning and misleading television commercials and questionnaires. The trend feeds the cynical belief that courts — just like legislatures, governors and mayors — can be lobbied and manipulated through well-placed donations. This has begun to take a toll on public faith in the court system. In a poll released this week by Justice at Stake, a fair-courts advocacy group, more than two-thirds of those surveyed doubted that a judge could be impartial in a case in which one side had donated $50,000 to his or her campaign, and 85% said the judge should step aside, or recuse. In a USA TODAY survey this month, 89% said the influence of campaign money on judges is a problem. Some or all judges are elected in 39 states.

'Like a hooker'

Even judges themselves — not usually prone to public introspection — feel dirtied by campaign money. Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeifer said in 2006, "I never felt so much like a hooker down by the bus station. ... Everyone interested in contributing has very specific interests. They mean to be buying a vote." After Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier and his opponent raised about $9 million for their 2004 contest — one of the costliest judicial elections in history — Karmeier said, "Basically that's obscene for a judicial race. ... How can people have faith in the system?" (Karmeier didn't exactly restore faith when, after winning, he refused to recuse in a high-stakes case involving one of his major benefactors.)

Restoring confidence in the courts is at the center of a crucial case that will be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday. Judicial reformers are asking the high court to declare that at some point, campaign donations can be so high that they result in a "probability of bias," requiring that judges recuse in cases involving the donors. That might not sound like much to ask, but it's a significant start. Most states already require judges to recuse when the judge's impartiality "might reasonably be questioned," wording developed by the American Bar Association. But the decision to recuse is usually left up to the judges, and some judges argue that because the donations go to their campaigns, not directly into their pockets, there's no problem. Litigants don't often ask a judge to step aside, fearing they'll anger the judge and invite retaliation if he or she says no. The case also reflects a shift in tactics for those alarmed by increasingly costly and noisy judicial elections. Reformers who might once have pushed for eliminating judicial elections now realize that elections are here to stay, so they are pressing for ways to make the system more respectable.

The case before the nation's highest court is an outsized example of the damaging influence of campaign money. The chief executive of A.T. Massey Coal Co. sank $3 million of his own money to help elect Brent Benjamin to a seat on West Virginia's Supreme Court. Not coincidentally, the company was appealing a $50 million verdict in a business dispute, and the appeal was heading to the very same court. Benjamin won the election, and sure enough, on the court he provided the crucial vote that gave Massey its victory on appeal. Benjamin refused requests to recuse in the case, and no one could second-guess him. Massey's allies assert that the U.S. Supreme Court should keep its nose out of judicial elections and allow states to police their own judicial ethics. But many believe that the time is right for the Supreme Court to act — at least to help define when campaign donations should trigger recusal. Even business organizations — the kind of folks who might benefit from donating to judicial candidates — have realized that things have gotten out of hand. "There is a need to signal to businesses and the general public that judicial decisions cannot be bought and sold," according to a brief filed by businesses that include Intel and Wal-Mart.

Other options

Once the high court sets a standard, other reforms can follow. The Brennan Center for Justice suggests allowing litigants a no-fault shot at asking for a new judge as a case begins, in the same way that they can challenge potential jurors. Allowing other judges or an independent body to review recusal decisions is another worthwhile step. Or states could follow the lead of North Carolina and New Mexico and move toward public financing of judicial elections. Almost anything to weaken the potency of campaign money in electing judges is worth a look. As retired justice Sandra Day O'Connor put it at a Georgetown University conference last year, "Justice is a special commodity. The more you pay for it, maybe the less it's worth."

Tony Mauro, Supreme Court correspondent for Legal Times and Incisive Media, is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.


Anonymous said...

You bet your ass Money Obstructs Justice!

Anonymous said...

Lippman is what you get with an appointed judiciary. Short terms on bench, public disclosure of all complaints and recall elections. Anyone stupid enough to think the bar will pick ethical judges and not good ole boys and girls is in need of a brain transplant. That dopey Sandra O'Conner wants to make all judges more unaccoutable and her pea brain thinks then they will not be so corrupt.

Anonymous said...

if you go down to the election headquarters you can ask for a copy of who the judge paid off with campaign donations to get endorsed. the problem is those orginizations are covers.
that all should be online.

Anonymous said...

Not just Lippman, but look at who replaced him. Pfau is an appointed judge to the city court in NYC. Now, she is appointed as an "Acting Supreme Court Justice."

I want to know when someone is going to stop the illegal, unconstitutional charage of these "acting" judges. The state constitution is clear that the appointment of an "acting" justice is to be "temporary." The legal definition of temporary is less than a year.

There are many judges who have been legally and constitutionally elected who have no chance of obtaining any other position with the court system because of the crooks who are running it.

I wouldn't be surprised if this isn't just another reason why good, honest, qualified candidates don't bother to even run for office.

Anonymous said...

Comeon ALL Lawyers-Judges are HOOKERS!!!!!! Its the oldest profession!!!!!! And I mean no disrespect to HOOKERS at all!!!!!! Money OR its equivalent changes palms daily that's the way the extraction process work, take the suckers for as much possible!!!!!! And YES Money does OBSTRUCT JUSTICE, you can write that down!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Money? Money? What's that? How could money possibly influence these paragons of virtue? These are men and women of great moral character. After all, they were once lawyers! Lawyers are hard working, honest, sincere, dedicated, guileless professionals who never lie, overcharge, deceive, trick, betray etc... Why, it makes perfect sense to empower and protect them like no others.
So I like to play with rattlesnakes, copperheads and cobras. Big deal.

Anonymous said...

I saw something interesting reported in the Buffalo News yesterday...a lower ct Judge who the News has exclusively listed for the past 2 years as an "acting" higher court back to being listed as just a lower ct Judge!

If this is not a mistake, then maybe the "acting" title in areas other than NYC are back to their elected status... to save money. You do know Paterson will hammer the rest of us in the East, West and Upsate before he attacks DOWNSTATE....where (here) he is unliked and unelectable.

So with the Chief Judge being in downstate and all the other big time won't see Paterson making or forcing too many changes in your area..until all of you have elected him permanently!

Paterson is a political pansy!

Anonymous said...

Two points:
You don't have to go to the county to find out who a supreme court judge paid. Supreme Court Justice is a state position, so you go to the New York State Board of Elections website and can find all financial info for elected state positions.

Also, there is no job titled "acting supreme court justice" and there is no legal salary. As we all know, it is the legislature that determines salaries, and there is no job as an "acting" justice. Any person who is in that "temporary" position, is only entitled to the salary of the position they were elected to.

Anonymous said...

The "acting" title maybe a farse...but the salary is that of the title that they are placed in. As a court reporter or a court clerk who works in a higher court...they too are paid the salary of the position in that the truth is..the judges are getting the salary of those that are in the real job of the "acting" position'... because OCA has rules for that type of designation. Those acting judges are responsible for felony cases, where they are not in lower cts and that must be compensated.

Also...I have seen attys giving Judges gifts during the holidays of Moet Chandon, huge gift baskets and gift certificates to high end malls. They may not be thousand dollar amounts...but they are in addition to the money that the attys give for the election and re-elections. The faces on the robes are sweetly beaming with the arrival of these gifts... some never heard of the champagne or never shopped at the malls were they now must spend their bribe, and the Brie cheese is too mushy for their beer tastes ...but these special acts by the attys and bondspeople... surely garner a positive response!

The gifts are sometimes given secretly at they are guaranteed not to be seen and the reporting will never happen. The Black Ego is never without stroking!

Anonymous said...

Of course money can buy many things, and/or you can trade favors too. Go ask Victoria B. Campbell, Esq. from Port Jervis, New York how much or what did she trade to "win" the election of city judge in Port Jervis? This inept and corrupt attorney and now fulltime Judge is corrupt to the core of her soul. Somebody should investigate the "absentee votes" that make her "won" and her contribution campaign money $9,000 selling hotdogs wow!!!

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See Video of Senator John L. Sampson's 1st Hearing on Court 'Ethics' Corruption

The first hearing, held in Albany on June 8, 2009 hearing is on two videos:

               Video of 1st Hearing on Court 'Ethics' Corruption
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