Business donations to judges’ campaigns often equal friendly rulings
WASHINGTON — State supreme court justices are favoring the corporate interests that finance their election campaigns, a comprehensive new study concludes.
With more judicial elections now awash in dollars, the study of several thousand court decisions found a relationship between business-affiliated contributions and how justices voted. The more business money a supreme court justice has received, the more likely she or he is to support business litigants, according to the yearlong study by the American Constitution Society, a liberal advocacy group.
“We have reason to be worried,” study author Joanna Shepherd said Tuesday. “Business groups tend to spend far more on judicial elections than any other interest group.”
An economist and associate professor at Emory University Law School, Shepherd analyzed 2,345 court decisions issued between 2010 and 2012, along with more 175,000 contribution records.
An elected judge who receives 1 percent of his or her contributions from the business sector votes, on average, for pro-business position about 46 percent of the time, according to the study. A judge who receives a quarter of his or her contributions from business votes with business 62 percent of the time, the study found. A judge who receives half from business votes with business about two-thirds of the time.
As with legislative campaign contributions, though, the new analysis raises a vexing chicken-and-egg question about whether donations change voting behavior or simply reflect common interests between donor and recipient. Many judicial decisions, moreover, defy any connection to campaign contributions.
The California Supreme Court, for instance, issued a unanimous decision in February that blocked an asbestos injury lawsuit filed against a dissolved corporation. It might count as a pro-business ruling, but two of the justices who joined it - Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye and Justice Goodwin Liu - have yet to raise money or face a retention election.
In still other cases, a lawsuit will pit one company against another, so that business both wins and loses. In April, for instance, the Texas Supreme Court ruled in a case where a health care company faced off against the Aetna insurance company. Shepherd said the new study omitted such business-vs.-business cases.
Business organizations say they cannot afford to ignore what happens in the courts.
“America’s civil justice system is the world’s most expensive justice system and our nation’s legal system is in crisis,” the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal Reform states on its website. “The cost is taking a toll on everyone.”
Unlike federal judges, who are appointed for life, state supreme court justices can face voters in several different ways.
Some states, like California and Kansas, have retention elections in which voters decide whether to keep an appointed judge after a certain period of service.
Nine states, like Texas, have partisan elections for judges, while 12 others, including North Carolina and Kentucky, have nonpartisan elections. Other types of selection procedures are also used.
The new study found the relationship between business contributions and judicial voting in the states with partisan and nonpartisan elections, but not in states with retention elections.