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David Mittleman
David Mittleman
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Are State Supreme Court Justices In Big Businesses’ Back Pockets?

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It is that time of the year again, election time. While the country is concentrating on the race for the White House, there is an important election for a Michigan Supreme Court justice. Here in Michigan, Chief Justice Cliff Taylor is up for reelection. Chief Justice Taylor has ruled in favor of big insurance companies and corporation special interest over 80% of the time. [Source, Michigan Lawyers Weekly, July 2, 2008] Could that mean Chief Justice Taylor is in big business’s back pocket?

In answering that question, first you must know how state supreme court justices are chosen. State supreme court justices are elected in almost every state, unlike United States Supreme Court justices that are appointed by the President and affirmed by the Senate. The citizens of each state have an opportunity to elect the individuals that they want to sit on their state supreme court.

Electing judges and justices can have serious problems. For example, how do you elect someone you have no information about? How do individuals hoping to become members of state supreme courts put their name out to the public? The answer is, money. In this day and age, promoting a candidate for office takes an extreme amount of money. For some candidates this money comes from their own pockets, but for many others the funds that they need to promote themselves for an election come from other contributors.

Each state is different. Some states provide candidates with public funds to help run their elections. But what if those funds are not enough, who has millions of dollars to donate to a candidate for their election. The answer is, big business. Big businesses routinely donate money to candidates seeking elections to public office. It is these campaign contributions that pose questions of fairness and impartiality, especially with state supreme court justices.

For example, in West Virginia, The United States Supreme Court has been asked to step in and review West Virginia Supreme Court decisions involving big business and judicial conduct. In the case of Caperton v. A. T. Massey Coal Company, a judgment was entered in favor of the Plaintiff for $50 million. On appeal the West Virginia Supreme Court reversed the judgment in a close 3-2 decision. Questions of fairness and impartiality have been raised because two of the supreme court justice had close ties with Massey Coal Company.

Chief Justice Elliott E. Maynard lost reelection, after photos where uncovered featuring him vacationing with Don L. Blankenship, a chief executive of Massey Energy. Justice Brent D. Benjamin, who was the justice that made the deciding vote to overturn the $50 million verdict, received $3 million from Mr. Blankenship in contribution funds to get Justice Benjamin elected to the West Virginia Supreme Court. Now people are wondering if Justice Benjamin was in Mr. Blankenship back pocket. Was he ruling in Blankenship’s favor because that was the right thing to do, or was he ruling in his favor as a repayment of campaign funds?

West Virginia is not the only state with concerns that their supreme court justices may be repaying campaign donations from big business with favorable outcomes in the courtroom. In Wisconsin, Justice Michael J. Gableman was elected to the Wisconsin Supreme Court after running a $5 million TV ad campaign that falsely suggested that the only black member of the court had helped free a black rapist. Justice Gableman is now being accused of judicial misconduct for the lies he told in his campaign TV ads. There is also a question about how Justice Gableman was appointed a judge in the first place; suggesting that he was appointed due to the fact that he gave campaign funds to Wisconsin’s governor.

In Michigan, over $200 million has been spent on Michigan Supreme Court races since 2000, and it is almost impossible to tell where the money has come from. In the 2002 Michigan Supreme Court justice election, (PDF) DaimlerChrysler contributed about $100,000 to a certain candidate and was rewarded with the court’s decision to overturn a $21 million verdict against the auto maker. Chief Justice Taylor has received hundreds of thousands of dollar from big business, and he rules in their favor for over 80% of the time. [Source, National Institute on Money in State Politics] Chief Justice Taylor routinely refuses to disqualify or recuse himself from cases that potential pose a conflict of interest.

So how can citizens prevent supreme court justices from repaying big business for campaign donations? By voting for candidates that are impartial. Citizens in Michigan have an opportunity to not reelect Chief Justice Taylor and instead replace him with Judge Diane Marie Hathaway. Judge Hathaway is fair, impartial, and stands up for the middle class, not big business. Judge Hathaway has a proven record of being an independent judge, not like Chief Justice Taylor who consistency rules in favor of corporations and insurance companies.

The only way citizens of a state can prevent their supreme court justice from being in the back pockets of big business, is to elect individuals that are fair, impartial, and support the middle class; not big business.