Justice for Sale: How Big Money Is Overwhelming Judicial Elections and Corroding Our Confidence in the Courts
The hearing room of the Wisconsin Supreme Court could be a Beaux-Arts museum, exhibiting images of justice as idealized in America for centuries: ornate, dignified, above reproach. Light pours in through a huge leaded-glass skylight, radiating off veined white marble. Large murals set high off the floor dominate each wall, depicting the venerable sources of Wisconsin law—Roman, English, Native American, and federal. The one to the left of the room’s mahogany bench portrays King John of England reluctantly granting the Great Charter, or Magna Carta, which, in June 1215, ended his lawless seizure of nobles’ land and began an era of legal rights embodied in English, then American, common law.
Article 40 of the Magna Carta pledged, “To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay right or justice.” But recently, in a string of expensive and increasingly contested elections, candidates to be justices of the Wisconsin Supreme Court have flouted the not-for-sale principle, demeaning the courtroom’s grandeur.
Wisconsin is not alone. In state after state, campaign contributions and related spending by special interests have risen dramatically in the past decade and are expected to swell in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens Uniteddecision, which removed any limits on independent spending. Wisconsin is one of 22 states that elect judges to their highest courts, or one of 38 if you count states that have so-called retention elections by which appointed judges run to retain their seats. In all of them, independent spending threatens to overwhelm the system of electing judges, making them and the candidates running against them dependent on private money and eroding the public’s confidence in the courts.
Because judicial elections occur on different cycles and are subject to the push and pull of different forces in different jurisdictions, Citizens United has not increased spending uniformly in each state. But across the country, the ruling has caused spending to continue to rise at an ever-accelerating rate. This year, races in Florida, Michigan, and West Virginia have already set new highs for independent spending. Nowhere, though, are the pernicious effects more evident than in Wisconsin, which stands as a warning of just how bad things can get.