The United States Supreme Court is set to hear a case that could change the way judicial elections are conducted and the way cases are heard in the 39 states that elect at least some of their judges.
In 2004, Don L. Blankenship spent $3 million on advertisements attacking a justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court who was seeking reelection. Some of the advertisements claimed the justice joined an opinion to free a sex offender.
The winner of that election, Brent D. Benjamin, joined the majority 3-to-2 that threw out a $50 million jury verdict against Massey Energy, Mr. Blankenship’s company. The question of whether or not Justice Benjamin should have disqualified himself is now before the U.S. Supreme Court, set to be argued on March 3.
Mr. Blankenship stated that he did not spend millions of dollars in order to buy an advantage in a particular case. “Massey always has cases,” he said. “If someone wants to accuse me of something, they would accuse me of trying to elect Benjamin to rule in our favor in hundreds of cases, not one case.”
That is exactly what some people say happened, including a retired state justice. “We have one justice who was bought by Don Blankenship. It makes me want to puke,” said Justice Larry V. Starcher in 2006, while the two men were colleagues on the court. Justice Benjamin has ruled against Massey at least five times.
In states where judges are elected, judicial campaigns sometimes rival other political races in expense and venom. The elected judges frequently hear cases involving parties who have contributed to their campaign, leaving open the question of impartiality.
Lawyers for Massey suggest that the case is a Trojan horse whose real intent is to do away with judicial elections. Their brief adds that states should be allowed to run their legal system as they see fit. The other side says it has no problem with judicial elections, but in rare cases involving larges amounts from the people involved, judges should be required to disqualify themselves.
There are many schools of thought on whether judges should be elected. This writer believes that they should NOT be elected, and the above scenario is exhibit A in my argument. Additionally, a recent popular novel by John Grisham, entitled The Appeal, while fiction, has an uncomfortable (for trial attorneys) ring of the truth in it. From a common sense standpoint, and because of human nature, judges should not be elected. If they are not elected, they are not susceptible to the influences that those with power (i.e., those persons and corporations with money who can “assist” in getting a judge elected) can and will exert. And, if a judge is elected in large part with the help of those with money and power, then he or she is naturally, whether it be conscious or not, going to feel compelled (at least a little bit) to help those who helped him or her get elected. A judge needs to be impartial and unbiased; while this is difficult because a judge has life experiences like anyone, we should do as much as possible to eliminate undue influence on the court. Eliminating the election of judges would be a positive step in that direction. Virginia’s system of appointing judges is a good example of a good, workable system for the judiciary.