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New West Va. Law Shows ‘National Momentum’ for Court-Election Reforms

March 25, 2010

Governor’s Signature Is Latest Victory Against Campaign Cash, Justice at Stake Says

Justice at Stake

WASHINGTON, D.C., March 25, 2010—Justice at Stake, a nonpartisan judicial reform group, praised the signing into law of a pilot public-financing program for West Virginia Supreme Court elections. Bert Brandenburg, JAS executive director, said: “This is a big victory for West Virginia citizens. It also shows there is real national momentum for reform in how we elect judges. In recent months, six states have approved or proposed measures that would insulate courts of law from special-interest money.”

Under the program, signed into law by Gov. Joe Manchin, qualifying candidates would receive public money in the 2012 elections, in exchange for adopting voluntary spending limits. Additional money would be given to candidates if nonparticipating candidates or outside special interest groups spent more than a specified amount.

West Virginia becomes the fourth state nationally to publicly finance Supreme Court elections, joining North Carolina, New Mexico and Wisconsin.

Brandenburg noted that Wisconsin and West Virginia switched to public financing in the last four months, reacting to money-soaked elections that sapped public confidence in the courts. In addition, Michigan’s Supreme Court adopted new rules to make it easier to disqualify justices from hearing cases involving major campaign backers. Nevada’s legislature will let voters decide in November whether to switch to a merit selection appointment system, and similar efforts are underway in Minnesota and Ohio.

“Each state is adopting its own strategy, but the common thread is this: Americans believe our courts should be accountable to the law, not interest-group pressure,” Brandenburg said. “Unless the role of campaign cash is diminished, the public will continue to fear that justice is for sale.”

Public financing is important, Brandenburg added, because it removes judicial candidates from the “dialing-for-dollars” game. “Judicial candidates would no longer go hat in hand to the special interests who appear before them in court,” Brandenburg said. 

On March 8, Justice at Stake released a poll showing strong public support for the legislation.

According to the poll, 52 percent of West Virginia voters supported public financing of high court elections. After a brief mention of the 2004 Supreme Court election, in which coal executive Don Blankenship spent $3 million to elect Chief Justice Brent D. Benjamin, support for public financing rose to 61 percent, with only 30 percent opposing.
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. The election plunged the state court into national controversy, and in 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Caperton v. Massey that Justice Benjamin should not hear a case involving Blankenship.

West Virginia would use public financing on a pilot basis for two Supreme Court seats up for election in 2012. The plan grew out of a judicial-reform commission appointed by Manchin, whose honorary co-chair was former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. 

Brandenburg noted that the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes West Virginia, already has unanimously upheld North Carolina’s public financing law as constitutional. Moreover, he said, the North Carolina system has enjoyed strong candidate participation and widespread public support, according to polls taken after it was enacted. 

The Justice at Stake-Committee for Economic Development poll was conducted by Anzalone Liszt Research, which surveyed 600 West Virginia voters, with a margin of error of 4 percent. For further poll results, see this Justice at Stake press release.

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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.

For More Information:

Contact: Charles Hall, 202-588-9454; cell, 703-615-7642

The positions and policies of Justice at Stake publications and campaign partners are their own, and do not necessarily reflect those of other campaign partners or board members.
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