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State of the courts: Not good

Supreme courtTwo reports out today reveal a public disenchanted with their court systems and suspicious of the influence that campaign cash is having on judicial conduct.

One, a survey commissioned by the Coalition for Court Transparency to assess perceptions about transparency at the U.S. Supreme Court, reveals that the public strongly wants to see more of the high court in action. 

As noted in the Legal Times, “seventy-four percent of the respondents favored live camera access and 72 percent said the court should at least allow the broadcast of audio of oral arguments and other public court proceedings.”  Those polled also overwhelmingly wanted more financial disclosure by the justices  – who they rated negatively and suspected were rendering opinions based upon personal or political views.

State court systems didn’t fare much better — at least those in states where, like North Carolina, judges have to campaign for their seats on the bench.

As the executive director of Justice at Stake Bert Brandenburg notes in this Politico piece:

recent survey showed that an overwhelming 87 percent of Americans fear that campaign cash is affecting decisions in the courtroom. Even more chilling: A poll by the National Center for State Courts and Justice at Stake shows that nearly half of state judges agree. “It’s pretty hard in big-money races not to take care of your friends,” said retired West Virginia Chief Justice Richard Neely in 2006. “It’s very hard not to dance with the one who brung you.”

But the money keeps flowing, Brandenburg adds, thanks in large part to organized efforts to exploit money opened up by recent Supreme Court decisions:

Special interests and partisans are in fact escalating efforts to tilt courts their way, and the right has been far more organized. In April, the Republican State Leadership Committee announced its Judicial Fairness Initiative to “focus on supporting conservative judges and candidates at the state level.” In addition to efforts in North Carolina and Tennessee, the committee says it intends to spend $5 million or more on judicial races in other states this fall, possibly including Michigan, Montana, New Mexico, Ohio and Texas. The Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity also invested in Tennessee, as well as in Florida and North Carolina in 2012.

Echoing the sentiments voiced in the poll about the nation’s highest court, those polled in the Justice at Stake/Brennan Center survey relied upon in part by Brandenburg had an equally dismal view of state courts.  When asked how much trust and confidence they had in state courts and judge, a bare majority had just some; the rest had little or none.

By overwhelming numbers they called campaign contributions or other expenditures in support of a judge by attorneys or parties who might later have a case before that judge a “serious problem” and said in those instances the judge should step aside and not hear the case.

 

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