Wanted: The Best Judges Money Can’t Buy

According to this morning’s New York Times, the US Supreme Court ruled that judges must recuse themselves from cases involving major contributors to their election campaigns.

West Virginia state Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin had received $3 million in campaign contributions from the CEO of Massey Energy, and Judge Benjamin claimed he could remain impartial in Massey’s case against a local coal company. Incredibly, the Supreme Court’s decision in this matter gained only the minimum majority, with Roberts writing a dissenting opinion.

How about using judicial elections as a trial (sorry) for publicly funded elections? Not the opt-in system in place in North Carolina since 2002, but a system that provides public money to each candidate and limits private donations to $100 per company or person.

Fewer eligible candidates should make it comparatively easy to decide who qualifies for public funds. More important, public funding would eliminate the real conflicts that come from concentrated campaign contributions, often from a candidate’s former colleagues at a single law firm.

North Carolina’s decision to provide public money for judicial campaigns and limit private donations is credited with making their elections more fair, but it may not go far enough. And other states have made public financing proposals that might only make incumbents harder to dislodge.

We know that campaign contributions are a gateway drug for legislators. Let’s put judicial campaigns into rehab before more judges sink to this.