Pity the Alabama judicial candidate. It's hard to get elected. Now a U.S. Supreme Court decision is bringing an unwelcome inspection; more on that in a minute.
The attributes of a qualified judge don't translate well on TV. After all, how does one show an even temper, wisdom and deep knowledge of the law in 30 seconds?
Candidates vie for votes from an electorate generally unaware of the finer points of courtroom proceedings. Most of us, sadly, got our understanding of courts from Law and Order, Perry Mason, or L.A. Law. Of course, the alternative might be worse — learning about the legal system by standing accused of a crime in an Alabama courtroom.
Of late, another source for knowledge about the courts comes from the political right. Too many judges, the conservatives' narrative goes, are depraved liberals lacking a moral compass. They play footsies with criminals, give a sympathetic ear to frivolous civil suits and twist the law to suit their own outlandish views.
Judicial candidates must wade into this mess, seeking to convince voters they are not like those bad judges.
The Star, like most newspapers in Alabama, sees judicial candidates every election season. Most are intelligent and well-versed in the law; they sincerely desire to serve their state. Yet, the old saw from the 1950s about Adlai Stevenson holds. The candidate was supposedly told by a supporter that every "thinking person" was supporting Stevenson's bid for president. "Thank you," the Democrat replied, "but I need a majority to win."
Alabama's judicial candidates need a majority, as well. So they do a sort of dance, aligning themselves with political parties and employing buzzwords meant to convey coded messages to the voters.
This explains why elections about who sits on our highest courts devolve into campaign ads about loving firearms, playing piano at church and how much the candidates treasure their families and faith. All are commendable, but hardly the most relevant issue when presiding over the bar of justice.
To spread this message across the airwaves, judicial candidates need cash. Lots of it. The 2006 race for state Supreme Court chief justice burned through millions of dollars as Drayton Nabers and Sue Bell Cobb did battle.
Down ballot are races for the other seats on the state Supreme Court as well as spots on the Court of Criminal Appeals and the Court of Civil Appeals. None of them come cheaply. So contributors are lined up. And who among the public is willing to give money to see a judge elected? Why those with business before the court, naturally enough.
Thanks to Alabama's ineffective campaign finance laws, the money's source is easy to hide, sort of like an offshore bank where cash can be discreetly tucked away from prying eyes.
Judges and campaign contributions were on the minds of the U.S. Supreme Court last week in Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal. The case involved a West Virginia Supreme Court justice and a huge contribution from a large coal-mining operation. The question was whether Justice Brent D. Benjamin should have stepped aside from a case involving A.T. Massey Coal, the judge's main political contributor.
By a 5-4 vote, the court ruled the judge should have recused himself.
The details are fascinating, the stuff — literally — of a novel. In fact, John Grisham has authored a work, The Appeal, similar to this real-life case. In interviews, Grisham has also mentioned Alabama as a place where judicial seats (and eventually favorable decisions) can be bought with enough money.
Here's how Grisham described it: "You've got a case pending before the court and you want to reshape the structure of the court, well, just to get your guy elected. And that's happened in several states. Big money comes in, takes out a bad judge, or an unsympathetic judge. Replace him with someone who may be more friendly to you. And he gets to rule in your case without a conflict."
Yet, applying the U.S. Supreme Court's Caperton ruling to Alabama seems doubtful. The majority went to great lengths to emphasize that the case was "an extraordinary situation" and "extreme."
In Alabama, large campaign contributions that flow freely from interested parties are too commonplace to be called extraordinary.