Saturday, May 01, 2010

Bill Moyers Journal: Justice for Sale; Jeffrey Toobin; Buying the Bench

Bill Moyers Journal (PBS)

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 the Episode and Access More Resources

Jeffrey Toobin

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.


Jeffrey Toobin is a staff writer at THE NEW YORKER and a senior analyst for CNN. He is a well-known legal journalist and has written profiles of Supreme Court Justices Stephen Breyer, Anthony Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas for THE NEW YORKER. His most recent book, THE NINE: INSIDE THE SECRET WORLD OF THE SUPREME COURT, spent more than four months on THE NEW YORK TIMES best-seller list and was named one of the ten best books of the year by THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW, TIME, NEWSWEEK, FORTUNE, ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, and the ECONOMIST. His other books include TOO CLOSE TO CALL: THE 36-DAY BATTLE TO DECIDE THE 2000 ELECTION and A VAST CONSPIRACY: THE REAL STORY OF THE SEX SCANDAL THAT NEARLY BROUGHT DOWN A PRESIDENT, and THE RUN OF HIS LIFE: THE PEOPLE v. O.J. SIMPSON.

Before joining THE NEW YORKER in 1993, Toobin served as an Assistant United States Attorney in Brooklyn, New York. He also served as an associate counsel in the Office of Independent Counsel Lawrence E. Walsh, an experience that provided the basis for his first book, OPENING ARGUMENTS: A YOUNG LAWYER'S FIRST CASE — UNITED STATES V. OLIVER NORTH.

To Listen to the Episode and Access More Resources

More resources:

Bill Moyers: Buying the Bench

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