This January, Montana Supreme Court Justice James Nelson will retire after nearly twenty years on the bench. He is going out with a bang. ThinkProgress first noticed Justice Nelson after he wrote a truly outstanding dissent explaining that, while he is obligated as a lower court judge to follow the U.S. Supreme Court’s election-buying decision in Citizens United, he doesn’t have to like it. As Nelson explained, “the notion that corporations are disadvantaged in the political realm is unbelievable. Indeed, it has astounded most Americans.” In a more recent opinion, he warned of the impact corporate money will soon have on the judiciary: “I understand the frustration with the certain knowledge that soon corporate America will be in control of the judicial branch of government as well.”
In an surprisingly candid interview with ThinkProgress, Justice Nelson explains one other way that high-dollar campaigns to remove a sitting state supreme court justice can harm the law — a sitting justice does not have enough time to do their real job well if they want to keep their job. Nelson explained what happened after he had a serious primary scare during his 2004 race:
A couple of people who wanted me to get reelected sat down and had come to Jesus talks with me and said “You know, you’ve got to recognize that this campaign is a full time deal. You’re not going to be a judge for the next 8 or 9 or 10 months. You got to be a campaigner.” . . .
So I walked into the office the morning after the primary and I told my two clerks “here’s the deal” — I read all the briefs. Every brief that comes up there I read it. The clerks do, usually, the first draft of the opinions, but I work a lot of the opinions — “I said, here’s the deal, for the next ten months, I’m not going to be reading briefs. What you’re going to have to do is read the briefs and prepare a memo for me about what the case is all about. You’re going to be more involved in the opinion writing. I’m gonna go on like nothing has happened, but we’ve gotta — if I want to keep my job and you want to keep yours, this is how it is going to work.”
And that’s what happened, I became a full time politician for ten months.
The problem Justice Nelson describes is only going to get worse. As a recent Center for American Progress report explains, corporate interest groups are funneling more and more money into state supreme court races in an effort to seize control of judiciaries, and this flood of money will distract sitting justices who buck corporate parties even more from their core job of being judges.