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Needed: A public outcry for a more open and transparent court

As the 2014 North Carolina Supreme Court election campaigns get underway, concerns are mounting that contributions — especially by outside independent groups — will break all records, given the four slots open and the elimination of public financing.

And it’s not just the number that’s disturbing — it’s the influence that the money will have on the justices and how they might rule in any given case.

The recent “star chamber” bill that the General Assembly passed last summer, essentially allowing the justices to judge themselves, in private, when it comes to campaign cash conflicts of interest and other potential ethics issues, certainly doesn’t help.

After a number of scandals in Pennsylvania, the Supreme Court there recently adopted new recusal rules to clarify when judges must refrain from hearing cases due to campaign contributions from parties with an interest in the outcome of such cases.

As Billy Corriher from Think Progress writes here:

The rules demand that judges recuse themselves if a litigant, a lawyer, or a lawyer’s firm gave a contribution in “an amount that would raise a reasonable concern about the fairness or impartiality of the judge’s consideration.” Unfortunately, the rules do not specify an amount which would trigger mandatory recusal, but they are more specific than the rules in almost every other state.

Depending on how they are interpreted, Pennsylvania’s new rules could also include independent expenditures from outside groups that run ads supporting or attacking judicial candidates. The rules define “aggregate” contributions as those made “indirectly with the understanding that they will be used” for taking a position on a candidate.

Unfortunately, Corriher adds, while Pennsylvania moves towards greater transparency from its justices, courts elsewhere, especially in North Carolina, are moving towards more secrecy.

And change here won’t be coming from within the court, since some of the current justices pushed for the passage of the star chamber bill.

 

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