Judges For Hire

By Ali Frick

gavelThe internets are abuzz at the report that BP is trying to funnel all oil spill damage claims to a judge in Texas with deep ties to Big Oil. This would be really bad, and people are rightly outraged. But no matter which judge hears theses cases, they will come up in U.S. District Court, and that means the chances for political manipulation of justice is diminished.

If we’re really concerned with corruption of the courts, we have to get rid of elected state court judges. This year, sixteen states will elect their judges, who are forced to raise millions of dollars from people and industries whom they will meet in court. The Supreme Court has tried to tamp down on the most extreme cases of potential corruption. But in states dominated by a single industry — coal in West Virgina, oil in Texas — nearly every judge will have ties to these groups, and will know their re-election depends in part on remaining in these industries’ good graces.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor supports a system of appointment followed by a retention election as a way to eliminate partisan politics from the judicial process. But retention elections can be just as fraught. When a judge crosses the state’s big business, that industry will raise millions to unseat her. And for an electorate that really doesn’t know much about judges, seeing even one ad telling them to vote “No” on Judge X is likely enough to convince them to do so. A great example of the partisan nature of retention elections can be seen in Republican Party’s 1996 all-out assault on Justice Penny White, of the Tennessee Supreme Court, when she voted against the death penalty. There’s a reason the Founders made district court judges an appointed position.