FAQ ABOUT JUDICIAL ELECTIONS AND JUDGES
WHY SHOULD WE BE CONCERNED WITH THE INDEPENDENCE OF JUDGES?
With money and politics already dominating the executive and legislative branches, our court system is one of the only places left in America where everyday people can successfully confront powerful industries and institutions and seek justice. Because of this important function, the independence of judges has been a national concern since our nation’s beginning. When the colonists separated from England, they listed King George’s attempts to restrict the independence of judges as one of a long list of offenses enumerated in the Declaration of Independence. When groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (the largest lobbying group for businesses in the country and not a government entity) fund judicial attack ads and orchestrate campaigns against judges because of decisions they have rendered, the very foundation of our judicial system is threatened. Judges who must look over their shoulder to calculate how their decisions might play with business interests cannot fulfill the basic role of what it is we expect of a judge.
WHY SHOULD WE BE CONCERNED ABOUT JUDICIAL ELECTION CAMPAIGNS?
The vast majority of state judges in the country must compete in elections at some point in their career, either in retention votes or against opposing judicial candidates. Many of these elections have become as nasty, partisan and expensive as any other electoral campaign, and the situation has only gotten worse since the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Citizens United, which unleashed corporate spending in election campaigns. Both U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor have publicly sounded the alarm about this. Justice O’Connor noted that the Citizens United decision “will energize an ‘arms race’ in judicial elections and be a ‘problem for maintaining an independent judiciary.’”
IS SPENDING IN JUDICIAL ELECTION CAMPAIGNS A PRIORITY OF THE “TORT REFORM” MOVEMENT?
Yes. Since the 1990s, a principal focus of the “tort reform” movement has been ensuring the election of pro-industry state judges and the defeat of judges who typically support verdicts won by everyday Americans (“plaintiffs”), or who have voted to strike down state tort law restrictions as unconstitutional. In 1994, the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) officials told the group’s annual legislative conference in Washington, D.C. that since substantial “tort reforms” were passed in Texas, Mississippi, North Dakota, Arizona and Michigan in 1993, their next step would be to work on judicial elections. (“Tort Reformers Aim at Judicial Elections to Consolidate Gains,” Liability Week, January 24, 1994.) By 1998, this effort had become a major focus for them. Clearly concerned by the number of “tort reforms” being struck down by state courts, ATRA General Counsel Victor Schwartz said that since amending constitutions and enacting federal legislation were not viable options for them, their only option was to influence judicial elections. (“Tort Reformers Focus on State Supreme Court Elections,” Liability Week, October 26, 1998.)
Influencing judicial elections also continues to be a central focus for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the front group they created in 1988—the Institute for Legal Reform—to pursue the Chamber’s agenda of protecting corporations from liability. In 2003, Forbes magazine identified a “secret war on judges now being waged by the chamber.”
For more about Judicial Elections and Judges, check out these public interest organizations:
(We want to thank the Center for Justice and Democracy for their contributions to this page.)
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