justice for sale


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In "Justice For Sale," FRONTLINE correspondent Bill Moyers examines the impact of campaign cash on the judicial election process and explores the growing concern among judges themselves that campaign donations may be corrupting America's courts.

In the 39 states where voters elect some or all of their judges (see map of states), special interest money is pouring into judicial races helping to finance expensive tv ads, media advisers and pollsters, and threatening to compromise judicial independence and neutrality. This report includes a rare interview with U.S. Supreme Court Justices Stephen Breyer and Anthony Kennedy who speak out about the threat to judicial integrity.

"If there is the perception or the reality that courts are influenced in their decisions based upon campaign funding sources," says Justice Kennedy, "we will have a crisis of legitimacy, a crisis of belief, a crisis of confidence."

"Justice for Sale" looks at judges' races in three states--Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Texas--talking to judges, media consultants and special interest groups who are donating big money to judicial campaigns.

In Pennsylvania, the pro-business group Pennsylvnians for Effective Government (PEG) surveys the voting habits of state Supreme Court justices and funds those who share their philosophy. PEG leader Bill Cook sees his group as being in competition with trial lawyers and labor unions who also contribute heavily to judicial campaigns. "Judicial elections are very partisan," he says. "Do the judges know who the big donors are? Of course!" Helen Lavelle, a media consultant for a Pennsylvania judge who won re-election in 1999 acknowledges, "We sell a judge the same way we sell anything." Although she believed in her candidate's integrity, she's concerned about money's corrupting influence. "It's unfair. People are ending up with a chance to be on a bench who have no business being there."

Traveling to Louisiana, this FRONTLINE report investigates how in 1998 a business group financed a campaign against Pascal Calogero Jr., Chief Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court, whom they viewed as unsympathetic to industry's concerns. But after Calogero backed down on a crucial issue (and supported curbing a student law clinic which had several times successfully represented poor people against oil and gas interests in environmental cases), Calegero was able to secure enough donations from business to help him win another term.

In Texas--which Moyers calls "the heavyweight in partisan, expensive, knock-down, drag-out brawls for control of a state Supreme Court"-- FRONTLINE looks at how special interests and their fundraising has dramatically changed the make-up of the Texas Supreme Court. Twenty years ago, Texas was known as the 'lawsuit capital of America' with judges and juries favoring trial attorneys and their clients. By 1998, the Texas Medical Association had successfully spearheaded a campaign by business to take back the courts. Today, all nine members of the Texas Supreme Court are Republicans and staunchly pro-business, according to critics. Texas Supreme Court Justice Tom Phillips is one of several Texas legislators, lobbyists and judges who talk about the politics and money scramble to run for judicial office. Although Phillips calls for reforms to lessen money's influence, during his ten years on the court, he's had to learn to play the money game.

Throughout this report, FRONTLINE tracks the mounting evidence--polls, surveys and reports--that trust in judges and the courts is eroding because of the perception that campaign contributions to judges are affecting their decisions on the bench. For example, a June 1999 survey conducted by the Texas Supreme Court and the Texas State Bar found that almost half the judges in Texas believe campaign contributions significantly influence judicial decisions. Lawyers who appeared before the courts were even more skeptical of the system--79% believe that campaign contributions affected the decisions.

"Try as they might, the nine justices of the Supreme Court of Texas today have their next election on their mind every day of their life," says Bob Gammage, a former member of the Texas Supreme Court. Gammage believes that the justices strive to be impartial, but are dependent upon their campaign donors: "If you don't dance with them that brung you, you may not be there for the next dance."

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