Bill Moyers Journal
Buying the Bench
by Bill Moyers
BILL MOYERS: Over the course of a long career in journalism, I've covered this story of money in politics more than any other. From time to time, I've been hopeful about a change for the better, but truth is, it just keeps getting uglier every year.
Those who write the checks keep buying the results they want at the expense of the public. As a reputedly self-governing democracy, we desperately need to address the problems that we've created for ourselves, but money makes impossible the reforms that might save us.
Nothing in this country seems to be working to anyone's satisfaction except the wealth machine that rewards those who game the system. Unless we break their grip on our political institution, their power to buy the agenda they want no matter the cost to everyone else, we're finished as a functioning democracy.
To Listen Bill Moyers Entire Audio Essay
Justice for Sale
How would you feel if you were in court and knew that the opposing lawyer had contributed money to the judge's campaign fund? This is not an improbable hypothetical question, but could be a commonplace occurrence in the 21 states where judges must raise money to campaign for their seats — often from people with business before the court.
Though many states have elected judges since their founding, in the past 30 years, judicial elections have morphed from low-key affairs to big money campaigns. From 1999-2008, judicial candidates raised $200.4 million, more than double the $85.4 million raised in the previous decade (1989-1998).
Because of the costs of running such a campaign, critics contend that judges have had to become politicians and fundraisers rather than jurists. In a poll by Justice at Stake, 97% of elected state Supreme Court justices said they were under pressure to raise money during their election years.
According to retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, of all the fallout from the Citizens United decision, the most dangerous may be in judicial elections. These often low-profile affairs have become extraordinarily expensive in recent years, as interest groups have sought to shape the court in their favor by electing judges who share their views. With 87% of state judges facing election, the Citizens United case could have profound effects on the nation's court system. In remarks to Georgetown University law students, O'Connor said, "This rise in judicial campaigning makes last week's opinion in Citizens United a problem for an independent judiciary. No state can possibly benefit from having that much money injected into a political campaign."
This week the JOURNAL revisits "Justice for Sale," a 1999 documentary about the impact of money on judicial elections in three states — Pennsylvania, Texas and Louisiana. To create the documentary — produced by Steve Talbot and Sheila Kaplan — Bill Moyers collaborated with public television's acclaimed documentary series FRONTLINE and the Center for Investigative Reporting.
To Listen to this Episode
A late February 2010 ABC NEWS/WASHINGTON POST poll found that 80 percent of Americans on both sides of the aisle oppose the Supreme Court's ruling on campaign finance in Citizens United v. FEC. Sixty-five percent of those asked "strongly" oppose it. Legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin contends that, indeed, the ruling's potential to harm democracy runs very deep:
I think judicial elections are really the untold story of Citizens United, the untold implication. Because when the decision happened, a lot of people said, 'Okay. This means that Exxon will spend millions of dollars to defeat Barack Obama when he runs for re-election.' I don't think there's any chance of that at all. That's too high profile. There's too much money available from other sources in a presidential race. But judicial elections are really a national scandal that few people really know about. Because corporations in particular, and labor unions to a lesser extent, have such tremendous interest in who's on state supreme courts and even lower state courts that that's where they're going to put their money and their energy because they'll get better bang for their buck there.
Listen to the Interview