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Justice for Sale
Supreme Court
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February 19, 2010

How would you feel if you were in court and knew that the opposing lawyer had contributed money to the judge's campaign fund? This is not an improbable hypothetical question, but could be a commonplace occurrence in the 21 states where judges must raise money to campaign for their seats — often from people with business before the court.

Though many states have elected judges since their founding, in the past 30 years, judicial elections have morphed from low-key affairs to big money campaigns. From 1999-2008, judicial candidates raised $200.4 million, more than double the $85.4 million raised in the previous decade (1989-1998).

Because of the costs of running such a campaign, critics contend that judges have had to become politicians and fundraisers rather than jurists. In a poll by Justice at Stake, 97% of elected state Supreme Court justices said they were under pressure to raise money during their election years.

>>Learn more about state judicial elections.

According to retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, of all the fallout from the Citizens United decision, the most dangerous may be in judicial elections. These often low-profile affairs have become extraordinarily expensive in recent years, as interest groups have sought to shape the court in their favor by electing judges who share their views. With 87% of state judges facing election, the Citizens United case could have profound effects on the nation's court system. In remarks to Georgetown University law students, O'Connor said, "This rise in judicial campaigning makes last week's opinion in Citizens United a problem for an independent judiciary. No state can possibly benefit from having that much money injected into a political campaign."

This week the JOURNAL revisits "Justice for Sale," a 1999 documentary about the impact of money on judicial elections in three states — Pennsylvania, Texas and Louisiana. To create the documentary — produced by Steve Talbot and Sheila Kaplan — Bill Moyers collaborated with public television's acclaimed documentary series FRONTLINE and the Center for Investigative Reporting.

To find out about judicial selection in your state, visit this map put together by Justice at Stake.

Read more about the cases profiled in "Justice for Sale." Below you can find updates about the people and issues.


Former district attorney Peter Paul Olszewski was sworn into office as a judge in the Court of Common Pleas in Luzerne County in 2000. In 2002 Judge Olszewski was assigned to the Trial Division where he presided over approximately 180 criminal jury trials. He lost his retention bid in 2009, succumbing to backlash over a photograph leaked to the media of him apparently partying with a convicted drug dealer and with former judge Michael Conahan — who lost his seat in a corruption scandal involving a scheme where he sent juveniles to private detention centers in exchange for kickbacks. Olszewski, a Democrat, attempted to counter with television commercials, a Web site and appearing confident in public — to no avail.

Judge Thomas Burke is still a judge in the Court of Common Pleas in Luzerne County. He won his bid for retention in November 2009, tallying 35,617 "yes" votes, or 61.3 percent, despite a corruption scandal that felled three of his colleagues on the bench, Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., Michael T. Conahan and Michael Toole. Burke pledged to continue the sweeping reforms begun by his predecessor.

Municipal Judge Fred Pierantoni is a Magisterial District Judge in Luzerne County. He presides over the initial phases of the criminal justice system. Pierantoni, 51, ran unopposed and won a fourth 6-year term last year. Before becoming a judge, he was a practicing attorney. He currently is the president of the Luzerne County Special Court Judges Association, which represents the county's magistrates.

Virginia Murtha Cowley practiced law as a public defender in Luzerne County, PA, until 2007. She is currently a union representative for the Pennsylvania State Education Association.

Helen LaVelle is still the creative director of Lavelle Murray Advertising in Scranton, PA.

Jim Mundy continues in his position as an attorney at Raynes McCarty Law Firm in Philadelphia. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court Special Commission to Limit Campaign Expenditures published a report (PDF) with their findings in March 1998. The Commission disbanded after compiling the report.

Campaign finance in Pennsylvania Supreme Court elections: Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts have assembled data showing that the 2009 Supreme Court elections cost $4.5 million, but the organization believes that they actually cost much more. The Pennsylvania Republican Party itself spent $975,849 on the television advertising campaign for the winning candidate, Judge Joan Orie Melvin, outspending Judge Melvin's own campaign. The campaigns of Judge Orie Melvin and her opponent, Judge Jack Panella, reported raising and spending a combined total of more than $3.6 million as of December 2009.

Pennsylvanians for Effective Government is now called the Pennsylvania Business Council and is run by David Patti. Bill Cook, the former President, left the organization in November 2001.


Chief Justice Pascal Calogero retired in January 2009 after 36 years in the Louisiana Supreme Court, including 18 years as chief justice. He was honored at the 2009 Loyola Law Review Dinner. He was replaced as chief justice by Kitty Kimball, the first woman chief justice of the Louisiana State Supreme Court. He now has a private law practice in New Orleans.

Ginger Sawyer is still at the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, where she is the vice president of political action and the director of the Energy Council.

Wendell Gauthier died of liver cancer in 2001. His colleagues John Houghtaling and James Williams are still running their law firm, Gauthier, Houghtaling and Williams.

Charles Cusimano, of Metairie, is the justice of the peace in Jefferson Parish. Cusimano was elected justice of the peace without opposition in 2007, after serving 17 years as a judge of the 24th Judicial District Court in Gretna and, before that, eight years in the state House of Representatives from the 81st Representative District. In 2009 he was also appointed to serve as a parish administrative hearing officer.

Convent, LA: Though the residents of Convent won the Shintech battle, other plants and facilities are still being built there. In 2006, Air Products, a chemical and industrial gas manufacturer, built a hydrogen production facility in Convent. The steel production company Nucor Corp. is currently (as of July 2009) holding off on plans to built a plant in Convent due to the recession.

In 2000, the story also inspired a documentary film by Laura Dunn, called GREEN, in which both Pat Melancon and Emelda West appear. In 2001 the Lifetime Original Movie TAKING BACK OUR TOWN depicted Convent's battle with Shintech.

After being forced out of Convent, Shintech started construction on a plant in Plaquemine, LA (36 miles away from Convent) in October 2005.

Governor Mike Foster ended his second term as governor in 2004. He tapped Bobby Jindal to be the state's health secretary in 1996, when Jindal was only 24. He has been a political mentor to Bobby Jindal, the current governor of Louisiana, ever since.

Prof. Oliver Houck is still a professor at Tulane Law School. He has published two books, ENVIRONMENTAL LAW STORIES (co-editor) and THE CLEAN WATER ACT TMDL PROGRAM: LAW, POLICY AND IMPLEMENTATION, and several articles on environmental law since JUSTICE FOR SALE aired.

The Tulane Environmental Law Clinic continues to litigate cases for underprivileged clients. In July 2009 they settled a case seeking cleanup of mercury contamination in the Monroe Gas Field in Union, Ouachita, and Morehouse parishes, Louisiana. In February 2009 the TELC settled Save Our Wetlands v. Terrebonne Levee and Conservation District, a case that dealt with the defendant's attempt to construct of a new levee without a permit required by the Clean Water Act.

Rule 20 is still in effect, limiting law students' participation in trial cases. The rule is unchanged since it was amended on April 15, 1999, when a provision was added stating that the clients represented by law clinics must be proven to live below the poverty level.

Lisa LaVie Jordan recently returned to the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic as a supervising attorney, after leaving temporarily in 2000. She mainly focuses on water and wetland law issues.

Prof. Bill Quigley is still a professor of law at Loyola, and director of Loyola Law Clinic & Gillis Long Poverty Law Center. He is currently serving as the legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, and is on leave from Loyola until the end of the 2010-2011 academic year. He is the author of ENDING POVERTY AS WE KNOW IT: GUARANTEEING A RIGHT TO A JOB AT A LIVING WAGE (2003) and STORMS STILL RAGING: KATRINA, NEW ORLEANS AND SOCIAL JUSTICE (2008).


Judge Tom Phillips retired as chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court in 2004. In 2005 he joined Baker Botts law firm, where he is a partner.

Prof. Anthony Champagne is still a professor at University of Texas at Dallas in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences (previously known as the School of Social Sciences). He is also the director of the pre-law program in undergraduate education.

Kim Ross is a public affairs consultant who runs the company Kimble Public Affairs. He specializes in health care policy and political strategy, with special emphasis on physicians' rights. He regularly advises political figures at the state and federal levels on health care policy, and lectures at universities, medical schools and national conferences across the country on the politics of health care policy.

Former Texas Supreme Court justice Bob Gammage was the director of the Arlington, TX law firm Hill Gilstrap from 2001 to 2005. He is currently an attorney in private practice.

Walt Borges earned a Ph.D in political science at the University of Texas at Dallas in 2008. He taught political science at Grinnell College in 2008 and 2009, and is currently teaching political science at George Mason University. Since 2009 he has also been a Fellow in a two-year study of the 2010 British general election.

Craig McDonald is still the director of Texans for Public Justice.

Related Media:
Flag and GavelFRONTLINE: Justice For Sale

John Grisham
Bill Moyers interviews John Grisham, best-selling author of THE FIRM, THE PELICAN BRIEF, and THE RAINMAKER, in a far-ranging conversation that gives viewers insight into the beliefs and background that influenced Grisham's work and provides an unexpected look at his views about the state of the nation. (January 25, 2008)

Flag and GavelMonica Youn and Zephyr Teachout
The JOURNAL explores what the Supreme Court's decision means for campaign finance reform and the future of our democracy with legal experts Monica Youn, of the Brennan Center for Law and Justice at NYU School of Law and Zephyr Teachout, of Fordham University's School of Law. (January 29, 2010)

Flag and GavelFloyd Abrams and Trevor Potter
One week before the Supreme Court reconvened early for a special hearing on the constitutionality of campaign finance limits for corporations, Bill Moyers sat down with lawyers contributing arguments to either side of the case: Trevor Potter, president and general counsel of The Campaign Legal Center and a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, and Floyd Abrams, a First Amendment attorney. (February 1, 2008)

A special Bill Moyers investigation into the Abramoff scandal — and the dark side of American politics. (February 1, 2008)

Medical practitionersRobert Kaiser
Robert G. Kaiser has been following Beltway politics for THE WASHINGTON POST for nearly 50 years. This week on the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers talks with Kaiser about his new book, SO DAMN MUCH MONEY: THE TRIUMPH OF LOBBYING AND THE CORROSION OF AMERICAN GOVERNMENT. (February 20, 2009)

Joan Claybrook, guest photograph by Robin HollandCan Washington Change?
Can the stranglehold of money on politics be broken? Bill Moyers sits down with Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, and Bob Edgar, president and CEO of Common Cause, to discuss how Beltway business as usual may stand in the way of real change in Washington. (October 31, 2008)

OSanford Levinson
Is it time to rewrite the Constitution? Perspective from the University of Texas Law School's Sanford Levinson, author of OUR UNDEMOCRATIC CONSTITUTION. (December 21, 2007)

The Supreme Court
An unprecedented series and Web Site from PBS that explores the history, impact, and drama of America's Highest Court, The Supreme Court.

References and Reading:

Justice at Stake Campaign
Justice at Stake is a national campaign that uses a wide range of activities, from advocacy to education, in their mission to "keep courts fair and impartial."

Justice at Stake: Money and Politics
Resources on the influence of money in court races from Justice at Stake.

Center for Investigative ReportingCenter for Investigative Reporting
Founded in 1977, the Center for Investigative Reporting is the nation's oldest nonprofit investigative news organization.

The Brennan Center for Justice: Fair Courts
The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU's Fair Courts Project "works to preserve fair and impartial courts and their role as the ultimate guarantor of equal justice in our constitutional democracy."

The Sunlight Foundation
The Sunlight Foundation is devoted to making government more transparent and accountable.

Public Campaign
Public Campaign advocates for publicly funded elections.

Documents Related to Citizens United v. FEC

Citizens United v. the Federal Elections Commission
The Syllabus of the decision, along with links to the rest of the decision, available in html and PDF.

Also This Week:
Bill Moyers Journal takes a hard look at how campaign cash in judicial races may sway America's courts. The Journal revisits the 1999 FRONTLINE special "Justice for Sale" which looked at the growing concern - even among Supreme Court justices themselves - that campaign contributions may be corrupting the judicial process.

Legal analyst and journalist Jeffrey Toobin talks about the relationship between big money and judicial elections today.

Read the rulings, get analysis, find out what legal actions are underway and join the debate.


View highlights of our coverage of money and politics: campaign finance, lobbying, earmarks and more.

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