Donors shouldn't tip scales of justice
The Editorial Board| Tuesday, May 6, 2008
Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has railed about state courts being corrupted by large campaign contributions to elected judges. In her next speech about the influence of cash in the courtrooms, she will have a perfect example from Texas.
Homebuilder Bob Perry has given millions of dollars to state and national political campaigns and candidates, including all nine members of the Texas Supreme Court. Perry hit the jackpot late last week as a divided Supreme Court ruled in favor of his company, Perry Homes, in an $800,000 arbitration case. Perry and his family have donated more than $260,000 to the justices.
The court decided against Bob and Jane Cull, who bought a defective home from Perry’s company in 1996. When Perry Homes refused to fix the problems, the Culls sued. Later, they agreed to arbitration and were awarded $800,000.
Perry Homes challenged the award but lost in state district court and lost again on appeal. But in a 5-4 decision, the state Supreme Court overturned the arbitrator’s ruling. A narrow court majority ruled that the Culls benefited by suing first then later filing for arbitration. In a ruling last year, the court said aggrieved homebuyers should go to arbitration.
It is impossible not to be cynical about the poisonous effect of money on justice. Texas is one of only a handful of states that elects its top judges, although 39 states elect at least some of them and judicial races are attracting huge sums everywhere.
The influence of money on the judiciary has long been a problem in Texas. When CBS reported on “Justice for Sale” in 1987, it was the trial lawyers in Texas who made the large donations and reaped the results in favorable decisions. Today, it’s big business - insurance companies, builders and health care providers - but the resulting cynicism is the same.
When thousands of dollars are flowing to judicial candidates, their fairness and impartiality are in doubt. And a ruling like the one favoring a huge donor like Perry undermines the ideal of judicial integrity, even if the decision is on sound legal footing.
Texas isn’t alone in harboring a supreme court that appears to favor special interests. The West Virginia Supreme Court threw out a $50 million judgment against a coal company whose chief executive vacationed in Europe with the court’s chief justice. In a rehearing, the chief justice recused himself, but the decision stood on a 3-2 vote. The deciding justice refused to recuse himself though he had received more than $3 million from the coal company’s executive.
Texas has made only half-hearted attempts to limit the influence of big donors, special interest groups and law firms with clients before the court. It hasn’t worked, and Texas should abandon its practice of having judges run partisan races while accepting campaign money from those with interests before the courts.
Even if the system hasn’t bred actual corruption, it has fed the appearance of it, and that’s just as damaging to the reputation of our judiciary.
If Texas isn’t going to move away from electing judges, it should at least require judges who take large political donations to recuse themselves from cases involving the donors. That simple solution ought to curb self-interested contributors and possibly restore a sense of integrity to state courts.