Donations to judges' campaigns often result in friendly rulings

A new study concludes state supreme court justices are favoring their contributors.

June 14, 2013

With more judicial elections now awash in dollars, the study of several thousand court decisions found a relationship between business-affiliated contributions and how justices voted. The more business money a supreme court justice has received, the more likely she or he is to support business litigants, according to the yearlong study by the American Constitution Society, a liberal advocacy group.

"We have reason to be worried," study author Joanna Shepherd said this week. "Business groups tend to spend far more on judicial elections than any other interest group."


An economist and associate professor at Emory University Law School, Shepherd analyzed 2,345 court decisions issued between 2010 and 2012, along with more 175,000 contribution records.

An elected judge who receives 1 percent of his or her contributions from the business sector votes, on average, for pro-business position about 46 percent of the time, according to the study. A judge who receives a quarter of his or her contributions from business votes with business 62 percent of the time, the study found. A judge who receives half from business votes with business about two-thirds of the time.

Idaho has safeguards in place to prevent the large-scale kind of campaign fundraising justice candidates launch in other states.

Between 2000 and 2009, 10 Idaho justice candidates received $939,122, the sixth-lowest total in the country, according to the study.

That's partly because of the state's campaign-contribution limit of $5,000 per individual or business in each election, said Betsie Kimbrough, election supervisor at the Idaho Secretary of State's Office.

That's not the case in other states such as West Virginia, the site of a prominent case that was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court after a state justice ruled in favor of a coal magnate who contributed $3 million to the justice's campaign.

All businesses and individuals can donate to campaigns, Kimbrough said, and a business owner can donate both as an individual and as a business.

But there is an honor system in place among candidates to ensure those donations don't affect their impartiality once they are elected to the bench, said Jim Carlson, director of the Idaho Judicial Council, a state board that investigates allegations of judicial misconduct.


Judicial candidates are not supposed to know who their donors are, Carlson said. Their campaign treasurers are required to report donor lists to the Secretary of State's Office without disclosing the information to the candidates. That way, even if a justice heard a case involving a business, individual or attorney who contributed campaign money, the justice wouldn't know, Carlson said.

"It would be impossible to be influenced one way or another," Carlson said.

The states where judicial candidates raise the largest campaign war chests are usually the states with partisan elections, Carlson said. Partisan elections tend to turn judicial candidates into politicians, which Carlson said leads to ethical murkiness.

Zach Kyle: 377-6464

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