Judges for sale?

This is disturbing stuff … a new study by the Justice at Stake Campaign, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics has found an unprecendented amount of money flowing into judicial campaigns, at a time where courts are being squeezed by cash-strapped state governments.

“Too many judges owe their jobs to campaign money hidden from public view,” said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake in a written statement. “Americans expect courts to be fair and impartial. They don’t want campaign cash to influence courtroom decisions.”

While the report calls out no New York judges for taking questionable campaign cash, it does mention New ¥ork’s recent layoffs as part of a larger problem:

After New York courts were forced to lay off more than 350 court employees to offset $170 million in cuts to the state judiciary’s budget, 65 dismissed part-time judges continued to work as volunteers to ensure that the courts’ indispensable work would not grind to a halt.

These cuts are coming at precisely the time when courts desperately need more, not fewer, resources. State courts confront elevated numbers of foreclosure filings, consumer debt proceedings and domestic violence cases—all of which rise in tough economic times—along with sustained numbers of other proceedings. Unlike other government agencies, courts cannot simply cut some services; they have a constitutional duty to resolve criminal and civil cases. And because about 90% of court budgets go to personnel costs, cutting staff is the only way for courts to absorb reductions.

Eliminating judicial employees means that some citizens looking to the courts for justice will walk away empty-handed. These draconian cuts also contain alarming long-term implications. Several studies have concluded that counties and states would suffer dramatic economic losses as a result of court closings.

While funding for courts continues to fall, the ability of special interests to spend freely on high-court elections, unfettered and in secrecy,  will be greater than ever in 2012, given continued court rulings and legislative attacks on campaign finance laws.

As the second decade of the twenty-first century begins, state judiciaries are caught in a vise, squeezed on one hand by interest groups waging an unrelenting war to impose partisan political agendas on the bench and on the other by devastating fiscal pressures.

“The rise in spending by non-candidate groups means that many judicial candidates have become bystanders in their own campaigns, watching the action from the sidelines,” said report co-author Adam Skaggs in a media release. “We expect judges to be impartial and fair. Now with campaign laws weakening, citizens understandably worry that justice is for sale.”

Rebecca Baker

Rebecca Baker joined The Journal News in March 2004. She covers Eastchester, Bronxville and Tuckahoe, and was previously the state and county courts reporter in Westchester County. In prior jobs, she covered the Town of Greenburgh and Rockland County government and politics. Before coming to The Journal News, she was a municipal reporter for newspapers in New Haven, Conn. and Warren, Ohio.