Americans are rightly concerned about significant sums of corporate campaign cash capturing their elected representatives. Even more troubling, though less reported, is the flood of campaign money that has poured into elections for state court justices over the last two decades. Judges are supposed to be independent, fair arbiters of justice. In the Citizens United era, however, judges will increasingly face a choice between siding with the law, or siding with special interests that can spend unlimited sums on their re-elections.
In just the last 12 years, state supreme courts have seen exponentially expensive races, with candidates raising nearly $250 million. The states which have seen the most judicial campaign money - Alabama, Texas, Michigan, Ohio - now have high courts dominated by judges funded by corporate interests. When pro-corporate judges control the bench, individuals suing corporations face higher hurdles. In a recent Center for American Progress report, we examined cases at these courts from 1992-2010, to get a sense of how the law changed after elections for the courts were flooded with special interest money.
With money playing such a large role in judicial elections, the interest groups with the most money increasingly have an advantage. In courtrooms across our country, big corporations and other special interests are tilting the playing field in their favor.
For example, the insurance industry in Ohio was dissatisfied with rulings against insurance companies and began donating heavily to the campaigns of friendly judicial candidates, who upon taking a seat on the bench -- then abruptly reversed those rulings. After the Alabama Supreme Court developed a reputation for sticking up for consumers in arbitration cases, the state's chamber of commerce and other business groups inundated pro-corporate candidates with campaign cash. Contributions from Alabama's Chamber of Commerce accounted for 40 percent of all campaign contributions in the most recent high court election in the state. And the new, corporate-funded justices are more likely to throw consumers out of court and into binding arbitration, which many view as inherently biased toward corporate parties.
Decisions in state courts, which hear 95 percent of legal disputes in the United States, have important consequences on ordinary citizens. One of the unfortunate plaintiffs in Alabama, Kimberly White, gave the title to her car as collateral for a short-term loan. She made two interest payments -- the equivalent of a 300 percent annual interest rate. She then paid off the loan and got her title back. Alabama Title Loans nevertheless repossessed her car a few months later. As she handed the tow-truck driver the documentation of her repayment, she says he pushed the gas and nearly ran over her. She grabbed the door of the truck, and a passenger allegedly pulled her inside, forcing her into the backseat.
She sued the driver and the lender for assault and wrongful repossession. In July 2011, the Alabama Supreme Court forced White into arbitration, ruling that a binding arbitration clause remained in effect, even after she paid off the loan.
Examples like these are part of a broader trend. In our report, we examined case law from the six states that have seen the most campaign funds since 1992, looking at rulings in cases in which an individual sued a corporation. The states that have seen the most campaign spending have high courts dominated by judges that favor corporate defendants over individual plaintiffs.
A citizen might sue a corporation for a variety of reasons -- an unsafe workplace, a dangerous product, or botched medical treatment. How can an ordinary citizen expect a fair trial if the judges hearing the case are funded by big corporations? Special interests are competing for influence in judicial races around the country, but in the states which have seen the most money, corporate special interests dominate fundraising.
The problem of corporate money infecting our state judicial system will only get worse. Spending by "independent" groups has becoming pervasive in judicial elections, as documented by Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center. North Carolina is the one state with a wide-scale public financing system for judicial elections, but the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision has now opened the door to limitless, "independent" SuperPAC spending in the state's judicial elections. All this campaign cash means judges spend more time focused on fundraising than on the law.
With judges backed by big business taking over our courts, are there any remaining institutions that can hold powerful corporations accountable? Americans will have a harder time using the courts to force employers and manufacturers not to cut back on safety to save money. Consumers will face steeper hurdles in holding accountable banks, payday lenders, and credit card companies that treat them unfairly.
Big business is tightening its grip on our courts. Instead of serving as a last resort for Americans seeking justice, judges are bending the law in a manner that satisfies the concerns of their corporate donors.
Andrew Blotky is the Director of Legal Progress at the Center for American Progress. Billy Corriher is the Associate Director for Research at Legal Progress and author of the recent Center for American Progress report, "Big Business Taking over State Supreme Courts."
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