That’s the question raised in this excellent Wall Street Journal piece by Jess Bravin. He reports that the number of amicus briefs filed with the Supreme Court has risen dramatically in recent years, with many of the briefs coming from opaque interest groups. Current Supreme Court rules only require that an amicus brief disclose whether a party or its lawyer funded the brief, or whether anyone else outside the named party contributed to its preparation. But this leaves plenty of room for little-known groups to file briefs, which may carry outsized influence with the Court.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) is pushing for greater transparency in amicus briefs. I have criticized Senator Whitehouse routinely on this blog for his often perverse behaviors toward the federal courts, but on this issue we agree: greater transparency would benefit everyone.
Still, the courts would be better off modifying the policy themselves, rather than sitting back and allowing Whitehouse and his compatriots to force a legislative solution.
The LSE Blog features some interesting new research by University of Texas Professor Brent Boyea on the intersection of partisan elections, campaign contributions, and professionalized courts. Looking at 12 years’ worth of data from state high court elections, Boyea found that campaign contributors are nearly twice as generous, on average, in states with partisan judicial elections than they are in states with nonpartisan judicial elections. He also found that “contributors support candidates more actively in states with professionalized courts where judges have higher salaries, advanced resources, and courts have freedom to decide their agenda.” And contributors are most generous when elections are partisan and courts are professionalized. This suggests, to me at least, that campaign contributors expect to get the most “bang for the buck” in states where a candidate’s election is all but assured on partisan grounds, and the elected judge will later have some freedom to act in a manner consistent with the contributor’s own agenda.
Somewhat related is this story out of Illinois, discussing how attorney Phillip Spiwack legally changed his name to Shannon O’Malley in advance of his campaign for a Cook County judgeship. Spiwack/O’Malley appears to be conceding to a stubborn reality of Chicago judicial elections: having an Irish woman’s name is an extraordinarily valuable commodity at the polls—more valuable, it seems, than professional experience, skill, or judicial temperament.
These items add to a growing body of evidence that in judicial election states, citizens are virtually expected to come to the polls armed with no more information than a candidate’s party affiliation or surname. How this advances the integrity, efficiency, or legitimacy of the judicial system is beyond me.
(Cross-posted at Prawfsblawg.)
Typically, critiques of money and judicial politics focus on the concern that donors to judicial campaigns will expect favors from a judge after election, compromising the judge’s impartiality. In a bizarre twist, the Buffalo News reports on a judicial candidate who is spending her donors’ contributions on other, unrelated campaigns:
When local attorneys, business people and others donated a record amount of money to Acea M. Mosey’s campaign fund, they knew they were giving money to an experienced lawyer and Democratic Party stalwart running for Erie County Surrogate Court judge.
What they may not have known is that some of their donations – at least $33,393 – would go to political parties, political organizations and seekers of a wide variety of other political offices, including candidates for Congress, Erie County sheriff, the mayor of Buffalo and chairman of the Erie County Democratic Committee.
Mosey’s campaign organization, Mosey for Surrogate committee, this year has given money – either in donations or expenditures – to a total of 167 political candidates, parties and organizations, according to a Buffalo News analysis of state Elections Board records.
Mosey, by the way, has raised $900,000 for her judicial election campaign even though she is running unopposed.
Those who are truly concerned about money and politics* might take notice of this past weekend’s fundraiser for Jacob Gold, “the dean of Democratic District Leaders,” in Brooklyn. The fundraiser brought out “a small army of attorneys,” all of whom hoped to wow the party bosses and win one of a handful endorsements for the bench in the coming election.
I have previously noted the rather nauseating control that party bosses maintain over the selection of New York’s trial judges. Events like this offer little solace for the prospect of an impartial and independent judiciary. New Yorkers deserve much better.
* As opposed to those who simply and mindlessly rant about Citizens United.