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Judicial candidates: Show us the money!

March 24, 2008 |  9:47 am

Today's the deadline for the 30 Los Angeles Superior Court judge candidates on the June 3 ballot to file their latest fundraising reports, and it will be interesting to see who the big money-raisers are -- and who is funding their campaigns.

Fundraising is part of the perpetual quandary of California judicial races. Candidates don't like asking for money, but of course they want to win, and one of the best ways to won is to send out lots of carefully targeted mail, which in turn costs money.

Judicial candidates often consider themselves above politics and many bristle when one of their number actively raises cash from the same partisan business or labor interests that fund legislative races or ballot measures. But is it any cleaner for judicial campaign money to be donated by attorneys who will later plead their cases in front of the victors?

Warnings of pay-to-play justice have been increasing in volume in recent years, and the alarm was sounded again over the weekend in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece by James Sample of New York University's Brennan Center for Justice. Sample cites egregious instances of jurists from Illinois and Wisconsin refusing to recuse themselves from cases involving companies that helped put them on the bench. Then there's the current case from West Virginia that sounds like something from a John Grisham novel.

in fact, Grisham was quoted as saying he didn't have to look any further than the Charleston Gazette for an idea from his latest novel. Now "The Appeal" is being cited as an outrageous not not outlandish illustration of the corrupting influence of campaign cash in the courtroom. In the book, a chemical company goes after a favorable ruling by funding a judicial candidate and planning to reap the reward.

Last month, West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Larry Starcher recused himself from a case involving coal company A.T. Massey, Inc. on conflict of interest grounds and called upon a colleague, who Starcher said received $4 million in campaign donations from Massey and associates, to do the same. See the court's press release here, but for the full impact click on the last word of the statement for a pdf of Starcher's full opinion. It's full of anger against his colleague, but here's the key part:

"I know hardly a soul who could believe that a justice who benefitted [sic] to this extent from a litigant could rule fairly on cases involving that litigant or his companies...."

It's different in California, but just how different? on the Supreme Court level, we don't have partisan challenges; appellate justices are appointed by the governor, conformed by a three-member panel, and retained or rejected by voters every 12 years. Still, the 1986 ousters of Justices Joseph Grodin and Cruz Reynoso, and Chief Justice Rose Bord, continue to provoke court-watchers, who debate whether the removal campaign was really spurred by the three jurists' votes to overturn death sentences or whether, instead, it was a business-led drive to end a string of pro-consumer rulings.

Most trial court judges are appointed by the governor (there is no confirmation process). Appointees can be challenged at the end of every six-year term, but if no one files to run against them, they are deemed elected and don't even get on the ballot. This year only one judge has been challenged: Ralph W. Dau. Such challenges usually fail, but remember that in 2006, Judge Dzintra Janavs was defeated by bakery owner Lynne Olson.

Ten other Los Angeles Superior Court seats opened up and will go to voters because the governor did not appoint anyone to fill them. If history is a guide, many, though not all, of those candidates are raising money from lawyers who can be expected to appear before them if they win.

A panel of California lawyers, administrators and judges -- including some who were elected to their seats -- is grappling with the thorny issue of judicial independence and impartiality. Members have zeroed in on judicial elections and campaign  fundraising. A Judicial Campaign Finance Task Force next meets in Burbank on April 28. A companion task force studying terms of office and selection of judges meets the same day in San Francisco.

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