Sustained Outrage

An avalanche of cash in judicial campaigns, Pt. 2

In a previous post, we looked at the vast amounts of cash poured into judicial campaigns, particularly races for seats on state Supreme Courts, and how many believe that money is undermining the judicial system.

On a macro level, well-organized and well-funded groups are spending millions and millions of dollars to help elect judges they believe will be either pro or con lawsuits filed against big businesses. But what about on a micro level?

As this report, The New Politics of Judicial Elections, 2000-2009: Decade of Change,  co-authored by, The Brennan Center for Justice, The National Institute on Money in State Politics and Hofstra Law School points out, when a judicial candidate accepts a campaign contribution, that leaves him or her open to the allegation that the donor will receive — or at least expect — special treatment from the bench.

In West Virginia, judicial candidates cannot ethically solicit campaign contributions directly themselves. But that doesn’t mean that lawyers and businesses don’t hurry to open their wallets and checkbooks for candidates whom they hope will look upon their cases and causes favorably. And in very extreme cases, this might lead to their disqualification, but only in the most extreme cases.

So what’s a candidate to do?

The current race for state Supreme Court between Democratic incumbent Thomas McHugh and Republican challenger John Yoder, circuit judge in Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan Counties, offers an interesting case study.

As campaign finance filings on the Secretary of State’s website show, McHugh has raised $289,326.09 as of Oct. 22. Yoder, by contrast, has raised $5,851.40. To date, McHugh has spent almost 40 times as much as Yoder.

Now, Yoder may pay dearly for his modest fundraising on election day — I really have no idea — but clearly he intends to insulate himself from any hint of a suggestion that he is beholden to any given campaign contributor.

Because they are running to fill the unexpired term of the late Justice Joe Albright, whoever wins will be up for reelection in 2012. (For the record, McHugh told the Gazette’s editorial board that he won’t run again, and Yoder announced his intention to run again, win or lose.) That election will be the first time public funding will be available for state Supreme Court justice candidates through a newly created pilot program, and Yoder also said that he intends to use the public funding option.

Let me be clear: I do not mean to imply that because he has accepted lots of campaign contributions, that somehow McHugh lacks integrity in any way. The fact that so many people are willing to give him so much money can be seen as a testament to how well-respected he is. I’m just noting that Yoder has taken a different route, one that has kept any appearance of justice being for sale out of his campaign. And when he runs again in 2012, he will be able to make the same claim.

And after all the money that’s been spent in West Virginia Supreme Court races over the last decade — almost $10 million — that will be a refreshing change.

As a sidenote, I also pulled the most recent campaign finance reports from the two candidates for Kanawha Circuit Judge, Republican Dan Greear and Democrat Carrie Webster.

Webster, who was appointed to the bench by Gov. Joe Manchin after Irene C. Berger was appointed to the federal bench, has raised $172,285 and spent $143,064. Greear has raised $75,509 and spent $68,243.

So the two candidates for circuit judge have raised a combined $247,794, almost as much ($295,177) as the two candidates for state Supreme Court justice.