Washington, D.C. — As the amount of campaign cash in judicial elections has exploded in recent years, concerns about judicial impartiality have grown more urgent, and the Center for American Progress today released “Strong Recusal Rules Are Crucial to Judicial Integrity.” This new CAP report demonstrates that an abundance of campaign donations has led to alarming conflicts of interest—causing citizens to question the impartiality of judges—and argues that because courts have generally failed in policing themselves, state legislatures should pass laws mandating recusal when campaign contributions from a litigant or attorney reach a certain point.
A flood of campaign cash has flowed from corporations, interest groups, and lawyers seeking to influence the composition of state high courts and the rulings issued by those courts. Independent spending played a crucial role in state supreme court races around the country, and omitting independent expenditures from recusal rules would present a huge loophole for litigants and lawyers looking to influence judges. Unlike legislators, judges make decisions that impact specific individuals or entities before their courts, which means avoiding any bias or partiality is critical.
State supreme court judicial candidates from 2000 to 2009 raised more than $200 million—two and a half times more than the amount raised in the previous decade. A recent Justice at Stake report found that judicial elections in 2012 set a spending record, with $27.8 million shelled out for television advertising alone. Donors were able to avoid contribution limits by funneling money through “independent expenditures.” A bright-line rule would not allow judges any wiggle room to avoid recusal. As long as recusal rules are based on vague standards of “impropriety,” judges will be able to avoid recusal in the face of large campaign contributions.
States have so far failed to update their recusal rules in the wake of multimillion-dollar judicial campaigns. In most states, each judge decides for himself or herself when recusal is warranted. State supreme courts have failed to take the steps necessary to ensure public confidence in the judiciary. Additionally, recusal statutes should cover independent expenditures made on behalf of a judge’s campaign. Spending by groups that are independent of judicial campaigns has risen sharply in recent elections.
Polls show that the vast majority of citizens are concerned that campaign cash affects judges’ rulings. This is a bipartisan concern, and the public must demand that state legislators take action.
To speak with CAP experts, please contact Christina DiPasquale at 202.481.8181 or firstname.lastname@example.org.