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Monday, August 29, 2005

. . . With Liberty and Justice for Those That Can Afford It

Not quite as catchy, is it?

As Sid Salter reports in The Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, MS), the war between trial lawyers and corporate America has spilled over into the campaign financing for Mississippi's judicial elections. Campaign contributions from both these interest groups fueled $2.56 million in spending on just three state Supreme court races in 2004.

Mississippi is just one of many fronts in this war. A 2004 Illinois Supreme Court contest saw a nearly $9 million in spending - a national record for state judicial campaigns - much of it coming from trial lawyers and corporations. A 2000 Ohio Supreme Court race saw nearly $4 million spent by the Chamber of Commerce against a justice supported by trial lawyers and targeted by the insurance industry.

In both Illinois and Ohio, these interest groups started up front groups to hide their contributors, so that voters went to the polls not knowing who was spending how much in support of or opposition to the candidates.

Regardless of one's opinion on which of these interest groups is in the right, neither should have the ability to dominate our elections. This seems especially true when it comes to the judiciary, in whose hands we place the responsibility and power of dispensing justice and ensuring that government actions are consistent with our state and federal constitutions.

Solutions are available to restore fairness to elections and impartiality to those courts whose judges are elected. Limits on the amount wealthy interests can contribute to campaigns help ensure that candidates must represent a fairly broad swath of public opinion to get elected. Common sense enforcement of existing campaign finance laws can prevent outside groups from starting up sham front groups to evade limits while trying to influence the outcomes of elections. Public financing of judicial elections, currently done by North Carolina, levels the playing field for candidates who represent the viewpoint of a large number of citizens, but not dollars.

Until citizens demand such reforms from their elected leaders, justice will remain partial to those with the cash to get their candidates behind the bench.

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