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Allowing money in state Supreme Court races has a high cost

Sun-Times Library

Sun-Times Library

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Updated: February 3, 2014 3:32PM

Here’s a rule about courtrooms they don’t teach in law school but should: If the clout is a wash, justice will prevail.

When the clout on each side is equal, we have more faith that a judge will decide a case on its merits. Problem is, the clout isn’t always equal and that can cast a shadow over judicial rulings. And the huge amount of money that pours into state Supreme Court races nowadays all but guarantees that few important cases will be free of clout on one side or the other.

It is, for the public, an invitation to cynicism that all but begs for a better way of choosing judges — some form of merit selection or the public financing of elections.

A clear example is spelled out in today’s Sun-Times. In it, Springfield Bureau Chief Dave McKinney discloses that six of the seven Illinois Supreme Court justices, who almost certainly will rule on Illinois’ controversial new pension reform law, have taken close to a combined $3 million in campaign contributions tied to those with a personal stake in the outcome.

Could you make an unbiased decision when one of the parties has handed you a pile of cash like that in the past and is likely to fork over even more in the future? It wouldn’t be easy, would it? And justices know they need money in their campaign kitties to fight off challengers in the next election.

Former federal judge and Illinois congressman Abner Mikva is absolutely correct when he says, “There’s no question it influences them. It has to. You can’t just ignore the fact somebody gave you a half million bucks and say, ‘Well, too bad.’”

Then-Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama was, pardon the metaphor, right on the money when he called the system “unseemly” because justices could rule on cases involving donors who had made six-figure contributions.

We don’t doubt justices do their best to insulate themselves from the details of campaign contributions. But if you’re attending a fund-raiser, you pretty much know your fellow attendees are donors, even if you don’t know down to the nickel who gave what.

We also know that many of the people who make donations are sincerely supporting the people they believe would make the best justices, not looking for future favors.

But now that we see candidates raising millions for the Supreme Court and hundreds of thousands for appellate court seats, how can we not wonder about the decisions in courtrooms where one side has made big donations and the justices have never heard of the people on the other side?

We have an odd system in which we’ll shout “conflict of interest” if a justice makes a ruling on a case that affects a company in which he or she owns a single share but we ignore a $25,000 contribution from a party to a case as if it could have no possible bearing on the outcome.

An old joke holds that a good lawyer knows the law but a great lawyer knows the judge. And what better way to know the judge than to get the checkbook out on a regular basis?

No system for selecting judges is perfect. But merit selection or public financing of judicial elections would be a big improvement over what we have now. Merit selection, which would require a constitutional amendment, would create a system in which qualified justices are appointed to the bench. Public financing would retain a system of elected judges, but cut big private donors out of the equation.

Either system would reduce the potential influence of clout on the courts, which is a reform we clearly need.

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