NYS Takes A Stand On Money In Judicial Elections

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From the New York Times:

New York’s top court officials will bar the state’s hundreds of elected judges from hearing cases involving lawyers and others who make significant contributions to their campaigns, a move that will change the political culture of courts and transform judicial elections by removing an important incentive lawyers have for contributing.

The decision takes the form of a new rule of the state court system and will be announced on Tuesday by Jonathan Lippman, the state’s chief judge. It is believed to be the most restrictive in the country, bluntly tackling an issue — money in judicial politics — that has drawn widespread attention.

The rule is more restrictive than similar measures adopted recently in Washington, Oklahoma, Michigan and other states, and would take the question of disqualification entirely out of judges’ hands. It flatly states that “no case shall be assigned” by court administrators to a judge when the lawyers or any of the participants involved donated $2,500 or more in the preceding two years, court officials said.

Last year my colleague Daniel Schuman wrote about the growing problem of money in judicial elections:

What’s the price of justice? Over the last decade, state supreme court candidates raised over $200 million for their elections, two-and-a-half times the $83 million they raised during 1990-1999, according to newly released report. The need to raise ever-increasing amounts of money prompted former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to warn of a real and growing “crisis of confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary” in her foreword to “The New Politics of Judicial Elections: 2000-2009.”

We only know part of the money story. Millions of dollars have flowed into judicial elections “in ways crafted to avoid financial disclosure even as they seek to sway judicial contests,” according to the report. Challenges to campaign disclosure laws, the use of shell entities to funnel funds, and the recent decision in Citizens United to allow unlimited corporate expenditures all work to obscure the full picture.

If you need to see how that money can circumvent elections and affect court outcomes one need only look to the Supreme Court case of Caperton v. Massey.

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