Supreme Court limits cases for elected judges
By Diana Washington Valdez / El Paso Times
EL PASO -- Elected judges like those in Texas will likely come under greater scrutiny because of a Supreme Court ruling Monday involving a West Virginia case.
The high court said elected judges must remove themselves from cases involving parties who gave them large campaign contributions to avoid bias or the appearance of it.
The 5-4 decision came down Monday in the case of Don Blankenship, a coal company executive who spent $3 million to oust one West Virginia Supreme Court justice and elect his replacement, according to a McClatchy-Tribune news wire story.
At the time, Blankenship and his Massey Coal Co. were appealing a $50 million jury verdict for having driven a small competitor into bankruptcy. After the election, new Justice Brent Benjamin twice cast the deciding vote to throw out the verdict against Massey.
Although the West Virginia case put a spotlight on the impact of money in state high-court races, Texas experts said the ruling is not likely to have an immediate impact on court cases.
By ruling on campaign contributions of elected judges, the court indirectly raised the issue of how judges are selected.
"I've been a lawyer for almost 30 years, and I can say our judges are fair and even-handed," said Carlos Cardenas, the new president of the El Paso Bar Association. "I also don't see Texas, a pretty independent state, changing its system for selecting judges.
"The Legislature has tried to change it before, but the proposals never get anywhere.Personally, I prefer the election system we have right now."
Craig McDonald, a spokes man for Texans for Public Justice in Austin, a nonprofit organization that advocates for judicial integrity, said Monday's court decision set a precedent.
"(The) court invites greater scrutiny, and more federal challenges, to determine when the corrupting influence of judicial campaign money violates the U.S. Constitution. Texas judges should stop raising campaign money from lawyers and litigants with business before their courts," McDonald said in a statement.
The Supreme Court did not set a hard or clear rule for when a judge must step aside. The four dissenters called the ruling hazy. But speaking for the majority, Anthony Kennedy said the principle of fairness requires that a judge not decide cases for a favored benefactor.
Professor Anthony Champagne, who teaches at the University of Texas-Dallas, said the ruling "is very important because it is the first time the court has ever said judicial campaign contributions can involve violations of due process."
"However, we can't tell yet how many other cases the decision might affect, or what the court means by a large campaign contribution," Champagne said. "The justices said this was an exceptional case, and it was. It will take a while for it to work its way through the trial courts, and appeals courts and so on."
Champagne said he has studied the issue of judge selections for 25 years, and tentatively leans toward a merit system, in which the governor selects judges who are recommended, and who then run later in "retention" elections.
In Texas, practically all nonfederal judges are elected, mostly in partisan races. El Paso municipal judges are elected in nonpartisan races. Partisan races include justices of the peace, county court judges, district judges, appeals court judges and high appellate court justices.
Champagne said Texas and six other states select their judges through partisan elections.
A few other states, including Ohio and Michigan, conduct nonpartisan elections, "that actually are very partisan," he said.
In the late 1980s, the Texas Supreme Court was rocked by a scandal featured on CBS TV's "60 Minutes" investigative report. The "Justice for Sale" TV program highlighted conflicts of interest among the Texas justices.
John Hill, then chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, resigned to lead the charge to end partisan elections in Texas.