Raising funds makes judicial elections process appear unseemly

Published 1:03 pm Saturday, October 20, 2012

The candidates in this year’s races for the Mississippi Supreme Court are all honorable members of the legal profession. One is the sitting chief justice.

But there is something unseemly about the process that requires them to raise money from donors to achieve their goal of serving or staying on the state’s highest court.

Asking for votes itself is debatable. We’ve long advocated consideration in Mississippi of an appointive system for the state Supreme Court with some safeguard such as a periodic up or down vote to determine whether a justice stays in office. A majority of states have some form of appointed judiciary.

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Yet election of judicial candidates wouldn’t be as problematic if fundraising weren’t involved.

Recently, candidates released their latest financial reports. In the Northern District, where Justice George Carlson is retiring, Richard “Flip” Phillips has raised about $245,000 and Josiah Coleman about $182,000. In the Central District, incumbent Chief Justice William Waller Jr. has raised $375,000 to $290,000 for his challenger, state Rep. Earle Banks. Southern District incumbent Justice Michael Randolph has received $332,000 to his opponent Talmadge Braddock’s $7,720.

Money drives all levels of politics these days, and that’s unfortunate. But judges, even more than those in the legislative and executive branches, need to be seen as independent of special interest influences. Their decisions must be based on complete evenhandedness, regardless of their own political or ideological leanings.

That’s why the races are no longer officially partisan. Judicial candidates used to run as Democrats or Republicans, in party primaries as well as in general elections. They don’t anymore, and that’s a change for the better.

But they still have to secure donations. Many of those donors are friends and colleagues expecting nothing more than sound professional service, but interest groups also enter the fray. No interest group contributes to any candidate without some expectation that the candidate will represent its interests.

Ethical judges will avoid deciding cases based on the perspective of their financial supporters. But why make it necessary for them to seek, or for others to seek that support on their behalf? It’s simply not in the best interest of an independent judiciary with the public’s full confidence.