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“Justice For Sale”: Soliciting Campaign Cash Threatens The Integrity Of The Courts

Thirty-nine states use elections to select judges, and all of them have rules governing how judicial candidates can conduct their campaigns. This term, the Supreme Court is expected to rule on a case, Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar, which could substantially limit states’ ability to use such rules to protect the integrity of our courts – and lead to the greater politicization of judicial elections.

At issue in Williams-Yulee is a Florida rule that prohibits judicial candidates from personally requesting campaign contributions. Instead, a separate campaign committee must solicit and collect funds. Thirty states ban at least some forms of personal solicitation by judicial candidates, and 22 states, including Florida, have broad prohibitions.

There is good reason that most states restrict personal fundraising by judges. Lawyers and potential litigants are the most common donors to judicial campaigns. A personal request for contributions by the very judge or judicial candidate who may be deciding your case is not only coercive but raises concerns that justice could be for sale.

This is not an abstract worry. According to four former chief justices from Texas and Alabama — two states that permit personal solicitation — “our experience confirms there is a real risk that solicitation can morph into a demand.” In an amicus brief, the retired justices cited an incident in which a judge sent a personal email to a local lawyer soon after being elected, stating, “I trust that you will see your way clear to contribute to my campaign account in an amount reflective of the $2000 contribution you made towards my defeat.” The email further noted that “in very few realms does tardiness not incur an up-charge.”

In another incident, a judge emailed a small group of partners at a prominent law firm, detailing contributions made by other firms and noting that “all the Top 10 firms are committed to maxing out as a firm: $30,000 total.” The judge requested this firm “do the same,” explaining that “[a]t most of the firms, they are designating a senior partner … to bundle dozens of relatively small-$ contributions … until they reach the target,” and promising, “Bottomless thanks!”

These kinds of interactions threaten the public’s confidence in the basic fairness of our courts. The threat is particularly severe now, as judicial campaign spending has skyrocketed in recent years. Between 2000 and 2009, contributions in state supreme court races more than doubled as compared to the previous decade. Indeed, according to one recent poll, 95 percent of Americans believe that campaign contributions impact judicial decisions.

Regardless of how the Supreme Court rules – but particularly if it strikes down Florida’s direct solicitation ban – states must take steps to insulate judges from the growing flood of money in judicial elections. States should adopt strict recusal rules that bar judges from hearing cases when lawyers and litigants spend substantial sums to get them elected. Public financing of judicial elections is another vital reform, enabling judges to run competitive campaigns without the burdens of fundraising.  These commonsense measures would help ensure public confidence in the integrity of our courts.

 

By: Alicia Bannon, Counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program; Moyers and Company, February 22, 2015

February 23, 2015 Posted by | Campaign Financing, Judicial Elections, Judicial System | , , , , | Leave a comment

“Affluenza”: The Latest Criminal Defense For The Spoiled Rich

There’s a tired and persistent canard that criminals end up going without punishment for their violations because they convince lawyers and judges that they were so victimized as children by poverty or abuse that they can’t possibly be held accountable for their own behavior. This is hardly the case; in fact, the opposite is true. Indigent defendants have little recourse if they are assigned substandard public representation, and juries hardly identify with a poor kid or a black kid thought to be up to no good. That was represented pretty clearly in the acquittal of George Zimmerman (“George,” one juror referred to the defendant after that trial, as though he were a pal and neighbor). Zimmerman had shot and killed an unarmed African-American teenager, but the jury appeared to identify with the shooter more.

And one look at the appalling result of mandatory-minimum laws shows that drug offenders, in particular, are being subject to absurdly long prison sentences. A first-time offender found with 5 grams of crack can be subject to a minimum five-year sentence; add on some trumped up “conspiracy” as part of the continuum of drug sales, and the incarceration could jump to a mandatory minimum of 20 years. Jack Carpenter sold medical marijuana to dispensaries in California (where it is legal), but was still sentenced to 10 years behind bars by a federal judge.

Forget about avoiding prison because you had it tough as a kid. And don’t even try the “Twinkie defense,” the contention that you were so amped up on sugar you couldn’t control yourself. A Texas teen has taken miscarriage of justice one further, avoiding punishment for killing four people because of what his lawyer called “affluenza.” In other words, the 16-year-old Ethan Couch is such a spoiled brat because his rich parents never bothered to put any limits on him. Therefore, it was argued, even though his blood alcohol was three times the legal limit when he drove his truck 70 mph in a 40-mph zone – killing four people and seriously injuring two more – how could we possibly expect him to have done otherwise? He was never properly parented by his wealthy family, and so how could he be expected to know right from wrong?

The argument sounds like something out of a TV legal drama, added in to display the occasional absurdities of the legal system, especially in cases where the defense attorney is desperate and has absolutely nothing else to argue. But horrifyingly, in this case, it worked.

Couch was sentenced to probation. So much for a 24-year old woman whose car had broken down on the side of the road, along with the mother and daughter who came to help. And so much, too, for the pastor who also stopped to help the stranded motorist. They’re all dead. And two of Couch’s passengers are seriously injured; one of them, also a teen, is now paralyzed. Couch earlier this month pleaded guilty to four counts of intoxication manslaughter and two counts of intoxication assault causing serious bodily injury.

Before sentencing, a defense-provided psychologist, G. Dick Miller, said Couch would not benefit from jail, but rather from therapy. “This kid has been in a system that’s sick. If he goes to jail, that’s just another sick system.”

There’s a sickness to the system here. And it won’t be solved by the $450,000-a-year rehab center Couch will be attending, courtesy of his parents. And he’s learned his lesson anyway – that the rich don’t live like you and me. They aren’t held to the same standards of personal accountability, either.

 

By: Susan Milligan, U. S. News and World Report, December 16, 2013

December 17, 2013 Posted by | Criminal Justice System | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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