It’s difficult — if not impossible — to prove quid pro quid exchanges between candidate and contributor. Of course, that’s beside the point. Appearances matter; Alabama’s Supreme Court seats have gone to candidates capable of raising millions of dollars, and it defies logic to assume wealthy contributors don’t have a stake in who sits on the bench and how those judges rule.
Besides, contributors aren’t thinking of one case but many when spending what it takes to put on the bench Supreme Court judges who will see things how they want them seen.
Not that we’d want a court system that would automatically side one way or the other. The state needs judges who will weigh the facts and the law. The state needs judges who will rule with wisdom and fairness. The state needs judges with a keen intellect.
How did we come to this checkbook judiciary?
Twenty years ago, Republicans who were tired of a court filled mostly by Democrats invested heavily in races to flip the dominant party, particularly on the state Supreme Court. Cash, and plenty of it, was the cure the Republicans and their business allies used to take control. Trial lawyers and Democrats responded, driving up the cost of running a campaign for the court.
Today, one Democrat, Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb, sits with eight Republican justices on the highest court in the state. For that privilege, Bell raised and spent $2.6 million.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the court was known as “tort hell,” a slander meaning Supreme Court justices ruled unfairly in favor of plaintiffs bringing frivolous lawsuits. Republicans can’t use the line much anymore now that the court is widely viewed as anything but a place friendly to civil litigation. Now conservative candidates for the court spend their luxurious campaign war chests on soft-focus ads speaking in vague platitudes about family, faith and conservatism.
How much are those war chests worth? From 2000 until 2009, state Supreme Court candidates raised $40.9 million, according to the Brennan Center, which bills itself as a “non-partisan public policy and law institute.” That figure is twice as high as the No. 2 big-spending state in the nation.
The center found, “Eight of the 10 biggest spenders were business or conservative groups, led by the Business Council of Alabama (No. 2, at $4,633,534) and the Alabama Civil Justice Reform Committee (No. 3, at $2,699,568) … The other two, the Alabama Democratic Party (No. 1, at $5,460,117) and Franklin PAC (No. 8, at $765,250), were heavily underwritten by plaintiffs’ lawyers.”
Both sides in Alabama are playing this bidding war for our courts, and that’s bad.
The public already distrusts the pay-for-play system of electing judges. A Harris Interactive poll commissioned by the judicial watchdog group Justice at Work found that more than 70 percent of Democrats and more than 70 percent of Republicans said they believe campaign donations influence judicial decisions.
The best prescription would be for the state to scrap partisan elections for the high court and transition to a system that included: races free from political party affiliation, more stringent rules on campaign financing, and an appointment/retention-election system where voters get the chance to leave a judge on the bench or remove him or her. These are tasks for the Legislature and the governor.
For the present, Alabama voters can have a say on the direction of its top court. This page’s advice is to search for a way to better balance the court. The aim is to pursue justice that does not tip the scale one way or the other, but to fill seats with judges who aren’t beholden to one side of the partisan divide.
The To-Do List: Alabama Supreme Court
• Judges should declare their campaigns will no longer accept the PAC money that creates the appearance of checkbook justice.
• Judges should advocate to the other branches of state government to change the partisan, high-stakes elections for top appellate courts.
• Judges should focus on timely processing of the cases before the court.
Supreme Court, Place 1
Rhonda Chambers, a Democrat, is a Birmingham defense attorney with extensive courtroom experience.
Her opponent is Kelli Wise, a Republican judge of the state Court of Criminal Appeals.
Wise is an intelligent and hard-working judge. We commend her for visiting this editorial board and speaking candidly about her views, something her fellow Republicans running for state Supreme Court failed to do.
While both Wise and Chambers would bring considerable skill to the Supreme Court, Chambers gets the edge for her more balanced experience as a former clerk to a court justice, a leader in various legal organizations and vast time spent as a defense attorney.
The Star recommends Rhonda Chambers.
Supreme Court, Place 2
Republican Mike Bolin is seeking a second term on the court. His Democratic opponent is Tom Edwards.
Before joining the court, Bolin was a probate judge in Birmingham. He has raised more than $500,000 in contributions.
Edwards, a longtime trial lawyer, has devoted his limited campaign resources to a website dedicated to exposing the state Supreme Court’s high-dollar, low-public confidence behavior, www.justiceforsalealabama.com. Edwards is the former president of the Alabama Trial Lawyers Association.
The Star recommends Tom Edwards.
Supreme Court, Place 3
Judged by several standards, Republican Tom Parker is the worst state Supreme Court justice on the bench. His work output trails his fellow judges by a considerable amount. His rhetoric is inflammatory and unbecoming for someone who intends to serve as a fair and impartial judge. In short, he is an embarrassment to the court.
Mac Parsons, a Democrat, is a circuit court judge in Jefferson County and a former state legislator. He has vowed to pull his fair share of cases and to bring a deep understanding of dispensing justice to the court.
The Star recommends Mac Parsons.