The Paul Minor case in Mississippi has helped shine a spotlight on the issue of campaign contributions to judges. And more litigants are questioning the impartiality of judges, asking them to recuse themselves.
From January 2003 to August 2004, when the Minor case was very much in the news, 110 motions were filed asking justices on the Mississippi Supreme Court to recuse themselves. A variety of reasons were cited, including campaign donations. Justices approved seven of the 110 requests.
The Minor case focused on contributions and loan guarantees from a lawyer to judges. But the issue goes beyond interactions between those in the legal community. Here are a couple of examples where litigants called into question the impartiality of judges:
Edwin Welsh of Madison, MS, saw the state high court rule against him in a dispute with his former employers, the owners of a wireless company. In seeking rehearing, Welsh stated that the opposing party had made more than $16,000 in campaign contributions to two members of the Supreme Court.
In another case, Ellisville, MS, plumber Archie Wayne Courtney won a court judgment of $1.8 million from a bank, but a Supreme Court decision reduced the amount to $45,000. Jim Smith Jr., chief justice of the Supreme Court, wrote the opinion. But Courtney's attorney filed a motion for rehearing after learning that Smith's campaign committee borrowed $55,000 from a bank that is part of the same chain Courtney sued.
Brant Brantly, executive director of the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance, said such conflicts involving judicial campaigns are likely to increase in number because of the high costs of seeking such posts. "It's a natural by-product of campaigns," Brantley said. "They have become so costly and more organized." (Jackson Clarion-Ledger, August 22, 2004.)
The Schnauzer take: Mississippians probably are correct to question the fairness of their courts. But the Minor case is not a good reason to do so. My research indicates that the lawsuits at the heart of the government's case against attorney Minor and three judges were correctly decided. While an objective observer might think it unseemly for an attorney to be guaranteeing loans for judges before whom he has cases, Mississippi law allows such loans, contributions, etc. You could count me among those who think such activity should be outlawed. But it wasn't at the time, and loans/contributions to judges still are legal within certain limits. So the financial activity between Minor and the judges was legal, and my research indicates that the judges' rulings on Minor's cases were properly grounded in law--and I don't think it's even a particularly close call that the underlying lawsuits were correctly decided.
So what should Mississippians and residents of other states be concerned about? First, they should push for changes that will do away with contributions to judges, not only from trial lawyers but also from business interests. I find it revealing that the Minor case focused on contributions by a trial lawyer and lawsuits where working-class folks or small businesses filed claims against large businesses.
What about a case where a regular person has a legitimate claim against a business--perhaps for personal injury, wrongful death, fraud, etc.--and has that case dismissed (summary judgment) by a Republican-leaning judge who has received contributions (and maybe loans) from business interests? What if the Republican-leaning judge's dismissal was not well grounded in law, or supported by the facts? Will the Bush Justice Department look into such cases in Mississippi, Alabama--or any other state?
And what about efforts to reform campaign-finance law? There has been a serious proposal to do just that in Mississippi. And you will never guess who was opposed to it--and wound up killing it.
More on that coming up.