justice for sale

Join the Discussion:  How concerned are you about the money scramble in judicial elections?

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selecting judges


Great piece!! I've often thought that the checks and balances that protect our system of government have been damaged by politics in the judiciary branch. Here in California we use both elections and appointments to put judges on the bench. Both methods are rife with problems.

I think that the best way to have impartial judges on the bench is to have an extremely diverse panel select the a group of the most qualified candidates and then use a lottery to select from that group. That way we could eliminate the direct link between political payola and setting judges.

James Marshall
Santa Barbara, California


As the Public Information Officer for the Louisiana Supreme Court, I write to correct a statement made by Bill Moyers. Mr. Moyers commented that Chief Justice Calogero declined his request for an interview because Rule XX may be the subject of "possible" litigation.

Rule XX is in fact now the subject of litigation, and has been so since April 16, 1999. Opponents to the Supreme Court's clarification of Rule XX sued the Louisiana Supreme Court in the United States District Court to enjoin enforcement of the rule. They lost, and appealed to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals where the appeal is now pending. Chief Justice Calogero is prohibited by ethical constraints of the Code of Judicial Conduct from commenting on pending or impending litigation in any court. Therefore, as the appeal is still pending, Chief Justice Calogero had no choice but to decline comment.

Valerie Willard
New Orleans, Louisiana


I am glad and refreshed to see a positive motivated example of good investigative journalism where ever I can find it. Your Frontline episode about the judicial crisis was well presented, with a minimal amount of sensationalism, compared to the average network daily news broadcast.

I would like to add that I have never consulted with, or retained a lawyer to represent me on any matter, civil or criminal in my life.

Just considering the content of last night's Frontline, any one contemplating a lawsuit would be well advised to seriously consider the campaign background of any judge in whose court their case might be tried. Especially now, given the significant amounts of outside campaign contributions a judge often needs to win election or reelection, it appears that a judge whose major contributors have an opposite position professionally or personally to the plaintiff would be a poor environment to bring a case. There is no practical reason to attempt legal remedy in a local court whose deciding judge is already predisposed by prior obligations to a position opposite that of the aggrieved party.

I have heard about the profession of law and the alleged fact that many of its practioners act with a certain amount of hubris, suggesting their judgement is infallible.
More inportant, it is again up to the customer
client to be adequately informed and to exercise common sense.
Knowingly, it is written in the book of proverbs:" The borrower becomes the lenders slave".

Additionally, Mr. Moyers quote of an old Roman historian's statement: "...the more money crept into the Senate, ..then we were eventually ruled by emperors.

Craig Bradley
Beaverton, Oregon


Breyer and Kennedy should have been squirming in their seats.

When the Supreme Court equated free speech with unlimited campaign contribut-ions,it was presumed to include all elected officials. Is the Supreme Couurt an unwilling partner in our corrupt government?

Irving Bennett
Englewood, Colorado


Dear Frontline:
I was a candidate for the Philadelphia , Pennsylvania Common Pleas Court in the May 1999 Democratic primary. Citing the Mundy Commission report and survey of Pennsylvania citizens, I pledged to accept no contributions from any source, and to not pay Philadelphia ward leaders for political support.

I was the only candidate to make such pledges, but the press seemed to care little, endorsing most of the party's candidates, who had paid for that support, largely with contributions from lawyers and other special interests. In a letter published in the Philadelphia Inquirer I cited the Mundy commission's survey result that the public believed that Court decisions were affected by financial contributions. I rhetorically asked in that letter how it is that we accept a system that fosters so little confidence in our courts.

I did not win the nomination but some of the press I received,and your program of November 24, 1999 may have a positive effect in future reform efforts.

Walter Stewart
Philadelphia, PA


Thank you for an excellent,provocative report. However, so-called "merit" selection of judges is by no means free from political influences, as some of the recent U.S. Supreme Court appointments have demonstrated.

In states with long histories of electing judges, nonpartisan elections with public campaign financing may be an answer.

Michael Rosborough
Viroqua, WI


My greatest fear is that your expos on the cancer of greed's influence upon our judicial system will be ignored by a complacent patient.

The drugs of corporate and personal profit continue to camouflage a fatal disease that relentlessly attacks the core of our great democracy. The meaning of freedom is being perversely redefined by the meretricious frenzy to exploit everything and everyone obtainable.

It's as if the cancer victim, under the illusion that one part of their body won't be affected by another, chooses to ignore the doctor's warning. What utter and deadly folly!

Robert Dente
West Hartford, CT


The show is built on two false premises. Lawmaking and evaluation are joined at the hip. To assume that legislation can be controlled by interests while the judiciary can become clean is like searching for a two-headed coin.

Lawyers, doctors and such are pictured subverting the courts. Organized interests exist in a healthy system. They only devour the body when it is already diseased.

Some simple methods could make the body whole. Invention, however, requires candor. Until we admit that Franklin, Washington and Jefferson would give the current system an "F," we are not open to meaningful change.

David Dietrich
Irvine, CA


We might all be heartened by having two United States Supreme Court justices deplore the way big money has corrupted the "justice" system of Louisiana and Texas, and by their admonition that reform of those systems is imperative.
But when one of the justices, by his gratuitous comment, without meaningful qualification, that 'That's all right with the legislature," I begin to wonder.

Certainly, money has a legitimate role in influencing the making of laws, but when that influence grows so that it dominates the entire process, which is now virtually endemic, the Justice's comment becomes "a distinction without a difference."
Both systems urgently demand reform.

Robert Magirl
Albuquerque , NM


Once again, I am happy to praise Frontline and Bill Moyers for bringing a disturbing situation to light.

As an attorney in Maine and a former law clerk with the courts, I know our system of selecting judges through gubernatorial appointment works well here. Of course, there can be a political taint to any method used for choosing judges. I can imagine that the situation in Louisiana might not be all that different when the governor obviously does not understand and respect the need for judicial independence.

I would have liked to have seen more of the story dedicated to the issue of how elections affect criminal cases. Being labelled "soft on crime" can be as bad for a judge as being labeled "anti-business." There are studies showing a link between judicial elections and the low reversal rate of criminal cases. This link is especially disturbing in death penalty states. There was a judge in Tennessee who lost a retention election because she had been "too friendly" to death penalty defendants.

Thank you for the good stories you continue to produce.

ron schneider
Wells, ME


I'm a Texas lawyer who moved to Missouri several months ago. While the Texas judges I knew tried to be fair to all appearing before them, we all knew that human nature would make it extremely difficult to avoid partiality when one party or his attorney has openly supported the judge's re-election campaign, while the other has not.

I've gone from the worst state to what is probably the best in terms of judicial selection. Missouri created the paradigm judicial selection system used by many states now, and the difference in the impartiality of the judges is startling to someone who's used to the Texas system.

But the Texas system won't change until the political parties change their collective attitude toward the process. They LIKE having control of the judicial selection process, no matter how irrelevant a judge's party affiliation is to her job as a judge-- or how irrelevant it should be.

Richard Maseles
Columbia, Missouri


Your program was very clear, insightful and is a call for action. In Ohio, initial discussions have begun among citizen reformers on the possibility of public funding of judicial elections.

If anyone is interested in learning more or getting involved, please contact the American Friends Service Committee, 513 W. Exchange St., Akron, OH 44302. Phone: 330-253-7151. Email: AFSCole@aol.com

Greg Coleridge
Akron, OH


Thank you for the presentation of the material on judicial elections in Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and Texas.
You have performed an important public service in calling attention to a grave problem.

You understate the problem of the attack ad. Televised political commercials are the work of the devil. Viewers watching a ball game or a soap opera are a captive audience in a way that no other audience is. Because they have little or no interest in the subject of the ads, they are prone to assimilate the negative information and to forget its source. Kathleen Hall Jamiesons work on that subject is compelling, and she should be involved in a follow-up.

It is also a part of the crisis that such advertising is many times more expensive than campaign methods used before 1975 or so.
Mr. Moyers, like the Founders, is far from a solution. There were some very good reasons for the 19th century decisions to elect judges. Primary was the desire to separate the judiciary from control and manipulation by governors and legislatures. Judges would not be more independent if they were appointed. The money would be invested in gubernatorial campaigns and Governor Foster would have the Louisiana court right where he wants it. This is not to say that the methods used to select judges in the three states you examined are in any way satisfactory.
Longer terms in office would help. Public campaign finance is the indispensable key. It is, however, not clear that the Supreme Court of the United States would permit a state, even one financing judicial campaigns, to constrain attack ad campaigns. It has indulged since 1965 in extravagant interpretations of the First Amendment that may make clean, honest elections impossible.

Paul Carrington
Durham, NC


Mr. Moyer's report on Justice For Sale is just one more excellent report.

It is interesting to see that we can have at least 50% of the judges think the system is corrupt before something is done.

The amount of pollution New Orleans is putting in the Missippi is another story in itself. I wonder what Mr. Gore's thoughts on this are.

I also wonder where journalsim in America is, when we have to find out that New Orleans is such a bad polluter, from an indirect source.

This leads me to think that there are a number of unreported issues that we will see as side topics on future Frontlines. If they are reported anywhere.

Greg Wittman
Orlando, FL


Paying off judge's brings to mind Dante's Hell, surely not what was envisioned by that "City on the Hill." We need to remind ourselves of what happens when campaign contributions lead to such fiascos as the Savings & Loan issue which ultimately cost workers billions of dollars. The greed lurks behind all elections but local discussions are minimal. Workers and the poor had better unite to understand how business operates against them. The conflict between wealth and labor is a truly forced condition which no court can solve in a democratic way. Any checks and balances envisioned by our founders never were intended to include the poor or the workers. Turning to the initial discussions about the Constitution will illuminate intent as well as grave misgivings. The system really is broke, let's fix it.

madeleine carr
crawfordville, fl


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