George Graham

When Judges Are Elected, Justice Can Be For Sale

This blog will be hard for Jamaican (or Canadian) readers to understand. The election of judges is totally foreign to anyone in the British Commonwealth. Under the justice system inherited from the British, judges are appointed.

But not in America. At least not always.

In the U.S., a lot of people on the government payroll are elected. Even some judges.

And in a country of more than 330 million people, where nobody knows anyone outside of a tight circle of friends and fellow-employees, the election system is driven by paid advertising. So far, I haven’t noticed any ads for local judges. And I don’t think I’ve received fliers in the mail recommending any of them. All I know about the candidates is what I read in the newspaper.

So, when I go to vote, I just mark “yes” to re-elect the incumbent judges, whoever they are, unless I’ve read something scandalous about them recently.

That leaves a lot of room for mistakes. You might recall a recent blog about the judge in Louisiana who quashed an offshore oil drilling moratorium while owning stock in some of the companies involved.

And the world of judicial campaigns is changing – for the worse.

Thanks to a service called Truthout, I’ve learned a recent Supreme Court ruling is having quite an impact on that world. And, sadly, it looks as if the American judicial system is becoming even more vulnerable as a result.

The Truthout article, by Mike Ludwig, quotes a new study that finds special interests are pouring millions of dollars into judges’ election campaigns – probably in expectation of favorable rulings.

Here’s an excerpt from Ludwig’s piece:

Fund raising for state judicial campaigns has more than doubled from $83 million in the 1990s to $206 million from 2000 to 2009, according to report, which calls the increase in spending “pronounced and systemic.” In the past decade, 20 of the 22 states that hold Supreme Court elections had their most extravagant judicial campaign seasons to date.

You might think that the caliber of candidates in judges’ races is so high that contributions from special interests would be immaterial. I mean, what decent judges would let campaign contributions influence their rulings?

How about West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin (photo above, right)?

According to Ludwig, Justice Benjamin received a $3 million contribution from Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship (photo above, left). You remember Blankenship? Some two dozen miners recently died in one his coal mines after a slew of safety violations. That Blankenship.

Then, Ludwig, says:

Once elected, Justice Benjamin refused to recuse himself, and ruled in a lawsuit filed against Massey Energy by another company, in which Massey stood to pay $50 million in damages. Benjamin ruled in favor of Massey Energy in the 3-2 decision.

The case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which made a landmark 5-4 decision in Caperton v. Massey June 2009 against Massey Energy and Blankenship. The majority opinion stated that due process and “a serious risk of actual bias” required the recusal of Justice Benjamin.

Thankfully, the U.S. Supreme Court justices are appointed, not elected. So opportunities for corruption aren’t as blatant at that level.

Still, as Ludwig points out, while the Massey case set an important precedent, “special interests have continued to fight for – and win – the right to use financial muscle to influence judicial elections.”

He reports:

Private interests are using the First Amendment to justify massive spending on political campaigns. In January, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 5-4 ruling on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, striking down a longstanding ban on corporate financing of campaigns for federal office after hearing arguments alleging that limits on corporate campaign funding violate free-speech rights.

As Mark Twain observed, Americans have the best government that money can buy. The best justice system. too.

About the author


I am a Jamaican-born writer who has lived and worked in Canada and the United States. I live in Lakeland, Florida with my wife, Sandra, our three cats and two dogs. I like to play golf and enjoy our garden, even though it's a lot of work. Since retiring from newspaper reporting I've written a few books. I also write a monthly column for