Since the beginning of time, politicians have been claiming that the large donation that they received had nothing to do with the bill that they sponsor soon after that favored that donor. There is no doubt that often what the politician said is true – the reason the donor made such a large donation is that he or she knew that the politician shared the same political philosophy. Whether the motives of each are pure or not, there is certainly the appearance of impropriety. The same holds true for elected judges who hear cases that involve major campaign donors.
Recent polls show that Americans overwhelmingly believe that elected judges cannot be impartial when dealing with cases involving major campaign donors. The problem is more acute at the trial court level, where judges’ campaigns are financed in large part by local lawyers who appear before them regularly. The U.S. Supreme Court will be taking up that issue at its oral argument scheduled for March 3, 2009. The Conference Chief Judges has filed a brief in support of neither party and takes the position that there are certain circumstances which require the judges’ disqualification:
The Conference takes the position that, under certain circumstances, the Constitution may require the disqualification of a judge in a particular matter because of extraordinarily out-of-line campaign support from a source that has a substantial stake in the proceedings.
Of course, the problem becomes one of defining the point at which a judge should be disqualified. One resolution to the problem is to have a non-partisan, non-political system for appointing judges who then stand for retention elections. The Missouri Plan is the best one out there.
Cum Laude graduate of Cumberland School of Law, Pet Mackey is a civil trial litigation expert who represents plaintiffs in business and consumer tort, contracts and construction, employment disputes and insurance. He is board certified as a Civil Trial Advocate by the National Board of Trial Advocacy, a Certified Alabama Mediator, and an “AV” rated lawyer by Martindale-Hubbell.