CHARLESTON, W.VA., March 8, 2010—West Virginia’s Senate Judiciary Committee has backed a plan to publicly finance the next state Supreme Court election, in an attempt to insulate courts from special-interest influence. The voice vote occurred only hours after a Justice at Stake-Committee for Economic Development poll was unveiled that showed bipartisan public support for the plan.
The committee’s endorsement of public financing was hailed by Justice at Stake’s executive director, Bert Brandenburg. “Public financing is gaining national momentum as a way to protect courts from special-interest influence,” Brandenburg said. “West Virginia has an opportunity to guarantee all its citizens a fair day in court, without regard to who spent money toward a judge’s election.”
The House of Delegates approved the pilot public-financing program, which would cover two Supreme Court elections in 2012, in a vote March 3. The Senate measure still must be approved by the Senate Finance Committee, and by the Senate as a whole.
In a poll conducted Feb. 21-24, 52 percent of voters surveyed supported public financing of high court elections. The margin of support rose after a brief mention of the money-soaked Supreme Court election of 2004, with 61 percent favoring public financing and only 30 percent opposing. The poll also showed huge favorable ratings for Governor Joe Manchin, who has endorsed public financing legislation.
Details of the poll were unveiled today by the Justice at Stake Campaign and the Committee for Economic Development, two national nonpartisan reform organizations that commissioned the survey, in a news conference held jointly at the state Capitol with state Sen. Jeffrey Kessler.
“West Virginia’s voters understand that judges should be able to focus on the law, not on dialing for dollars,” Brandenburg said. “Public financing is a major step in protecting fair, impartial courts, and lawmakers will earn broad, bipartisan public support for taking this step.”
If the bill is enacted, West Virginia would become the nation’s fourth state to enact public financing for judicial elections, joining North Carolina, New Mexico and Wisconsin, which just approved public financing in December. Unlike the other states, the West Virginia bill is a pilot program, and would have to be renewed after 2012. Public financing of Supreme Court elections already has been upheld as constitutional by the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers both West Virginia and North Carolina.
The purpose of public financing, Brandenburg said, is to ensure public trust by insulating judges from the pressures of having to raise campaign funds from parties who appear before them in court. Unlike other government positions, judges are constitutionally obligated to provide even-handed justice once elected to office. But polls show three Americans in four believe campaign contributions unfairly affect courtroom decisions.
Since 2004, when coal executive Don Blankenship spent $3 million to elect Brent D. Benjamin to the state Supreme Court, West Virginia has been at the center of public debate on how to protect courts from special-interest influence. On March 3, the House of Delegates approved a pilot public financing program, so that judges would not have to seek financial backing from those who appear before them in court.
The poll showed strong lingering effects in the public mind from that election, and from a subsequent U.S. Supreme Court case, Caperton v. Massey, in which Chief Justice Benjamin was forced off of a lawsuit involving Blankenship.
Voters initially supported public financing 52 percent to 39 percent. But support rose sharply, to 61 percent in favor and only 30 percent opposed, when the 2004 Supreme Court election was mentioned briefly.
Similarly, 68 percent said it was a “serious problem” that elected judges received contributions from those who appear before them in court. After being reminded of Blankenship’s expenditures in 2004, that number spiked to 89 percent.
Other major poll findings:
- 78 percent said judges should not hear any cases “involving any organization, business or individual who spent significant amounts of money to help elect them.”
- The same number, 78 percent, felt campaign expenditures have a “great deal of” or “some” influence on courtroom decisions by elected judges.
- 77 percent believe Gov. Manchin, who established a commission to propose court-related reforms and who backs the public-financing legislation, is doing a good job, while only 21 percent disagree. He has favorable ratings of at least 70 percent from Republicans and Independents.
Voters also overwhelmingly support other reforms that would reduce the impact of special-interest money in court elections:
- 77 percent support tougher recusal rules for judges, saying judges should be required to step down from cases involving anyone who spent $50,000 or more toward their election. A similar number, 78 percent, said judges should be forced to remove themselves from cases involving campaign contributors.
- 75 percent support tougher disclosure rules, saying that special-interest groups which spend money on “independent” campaigns should be required to disclose who is paying for such campaigns.
Michael Petro, vice president of the Committee for Economic Development, said previous polls show that business executives strongly support proposals that eliminate any perception of courtroom bias.
“The business world depends on fair, stable courts that can settle disputes impartially,” Petro said. “Everyone, citizens and businesses alike, deserves a fair day in court. Public financing takes judges out of the fund-raising business, and helps make this ideal a reality. And when business can spend more money on products than on lawyers and electing judges, everybody wins.”
Six hundred voters were polled by Anzalone Liszt Research, with a margin of error of 4 percent. A copy of the full survey is available at http://www.justiceatstake.org/resources/justice_at_stake_polls.cfm.
# # #
The Justice at Stake Campaign is a nonpartisan, nonprofit campaign working to keep America’s courts fair and impartial. Justice at Stake and its 50-plus state and national partners educate the public, and work for reforms to keep politics and special interests out of the courtroom—so judges can protect our Constitution, our rights and the Rule of law. For more about Justice at Stake, go to www.justiceatstake.org, or www.gavelgrab.org.
The Committee for Economic Development (CED) is a non-profit, non-partisan organization of more than 200 business leaders and university presidents. Since 1942, its research and policy programs have addressed many of the nation's most pressing economic and social issues, including education reform, workforce competitiveness, campaign finance, health care, and global trade and finance. CED promotes policies to produce increased productivity and living standards, greater and more equal opportunity for every citizen, and an improved quality of life for all.