By Billy Corriher
After Massey Energy Co. spent enormous sums of money to influence elections for the West Virginia Supreme Court, the state created a pilot public financing program to free judicial candidates from outside influence. Only one candidate (out of eight) in this year’s election has accepted public funding. Republican Allen Loughry, a longtime clerk at the court, only needed to raise 500 small campaign contributions to receive $350,000 for the general election. Loughry said the large campaign contributions can be “extremely corrosive.” ”There is so much money poured into these judiciary elections, there’s a perception that money buys access.”
The former chief justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court lost his reelection bid in 2008 after pictures emerged of him vacationing in Monte Carlo with the CEO of Massey Energy, while the court was considering Massey’s appeal of an enormous verdict against it. Massey also financed the campaign of another West Virginia justice, who cast the deciding vote throwing out that verdict. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that this conflict of interest violated the opposing litigant’s right to Due Process.
Public financing would reduce the opportunity for Massey and other moneyed interests to influence judges. In recent decades, judicial campaigns have become increasingly expensive. TV ads are being used for the first time. Citizens are concerned that judicial independence could be compromised. Since Citizens United removed restrictions on corporate spending, the public can expect these problems to grow worse. So-called “independent” entities can now accept unlimited, even anonymous, contributions.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court has seen the most recent high-profile political battles. Progressive and pro-business judicial candidates are running expensive races, with more “independent” groups entering the fray. Judicial politics in Wisconsin has become particularly nasty, and this has led to all of the justices pushing for public financing. North Carolina has seen success with its campaign finance system.
A public financing system, however, could present problems of its own. Would it give state legislatures too much control over judicial elections? How can the states ensure that publicly financed candidates can compete? In the West Virginia race, the privately financed candidates have raised hundreds of thousands already, and one has loaned her campaign $1 million. The West Virginia law includes a “matching” provision that kicks in if opponents of publicly financed candidates raise a certain amount, but the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled a similar system unconstitutional. Without these “matching” provisions, how can states keep up with the exponentially rising costs of judicial elections?