Analysis: Is Justice Blind To Campaign Contributions?

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — With an often bizarre presidential race and a 24-candidate election for the U.S. Senate on the November ballot it would be easy to overlook that a Louisiana Supreme Court position is up for grabs.

         But somebody has noticed. As of last week the two candidates for the only contested seat on the high court had raised a total of $1.5 million in campaign contributions — more than $500,000 for Marilyn Castle, currently a state district court judge in Lafayette; $1 million so far for James Genovese, a judge at Louisiana's 3rd Circuit Court of appeal. Both are running in the Supreme Court's 3rd District, covering much of southwest Louisiana.

         Aside from the contributions made directly to the candidates and reported as required on state campaign finance reports, there are the expenditures made on TV advertisements that don't overtly call on viewers to vote for one candidate, but which clearly benefit one candidate or another.

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         Such spending is harder to track, but the nonprofit Brennan Center for Justice does it, searching FCC records to ferret out ad buys made by groups like the Virginia-based Center for Individual Freedom, which has run ads that benefit Castle this election cycle; and the Restore Our Coast Political Action Committee, which lauds Genovese in recent ads. That's hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of campaign spending, even if it's not treated as such.

         Worries that such spending creates the appearance that somebody's trying to buy influence with the court have at times spurred an attempt at the Legislature to switch Louisiana to a merit selection of judges — panels recommending a list of potential candidates, a governor nominating one, the Senate confirming.

         Nobody believes that would eliminate politics from the process but it could at least provide a layer or two of insulation from politics for judges who are supposed to make decisions based on facts and their view of the law and not with an eye on political polls or their campaign coffers.

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         So far, that's been a no-go at the Legislature. A serious try at instituting merit selection hasn't been tried in Baton Rouge in years. However, concerns about the influence of money remain — all the way up to the top court, apparently, as evidenced by a recent federal court ruling that's drawn even less notice than the Supreme Court race.

         U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance dismissed a suit by sitting Justice Jefferson Hughes, who went to the federal court after four of his bench-mates voted to recuse him from two cases. Oil companies being sued in those environmental cases had sought his removal, court records say, because attorneys for plaintiffs in the case had contributed to a Political Action Committee that supported his 2012 Supreme Court election campaign.

         Vance ruled on Oct. 20 that Hughes' suit was barred by the 11th Amendment, providing states with immunity from many lawsuits filed in federal court by their own citizens.

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         The attorneys seeking Hughes's recusal said they were not challenging attorney campaign contributions to judicial candidates. They said they were targeting a unique instance of "significant and targeted contributions made by a defined set of attorneys who have a direct interest in a discrete set of lawsuits."

         Hughes' fellow justices never spelled out reasons for granting the recusal motion. Thus, it's hard to tell where the line exists between civic-minded support of a qualified candidate and an attempt at influencing future decisions.

         The Brennan Center is looking at ways to diminish, if not eliminate, such worries.

         The center's senior counsel, Alicia Bannon, said in an interview last week that one possibility could be court's requiring lawyers and litigants in cases to disclose any expenditures they've made on judicial races.

         Stronger rules for recusal are another possible answer, she said.

         The center also has been examining merit appointment methods, with an eye toward eliminating electoral politics from the process.

         "We're highlighting that re-election pressures are particularly problematic and states should consider either single terms for judges or life tenure," she said.

         – by AP Reporter Kevin McGill



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