By BERT BRANDENBURG
WASHINGTON, D.C. -— The recent ruling in Loughry v. Tennant is deeply disappointing and means judges will continue dialing for dollars from major campaign spenders.
West Virginia’s public financing program was crafted to protect a compelling state interest: keeping courts fair, impartial and free from special-interest influence.
The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals struck down the program’s matching-funds provision, meaning that candidate Allen H. Loughry II cannot receive public funding beyond $363,000 he has received from the state, despite his having been significantly outspent by privately funded opponents.
Over the last decade, spending in judicial elections has soared across America, and public trust in our courts has eroded. The problem has been especially acute in West Virginia. Unless the role of campaign cash is reduced, the public will continue to fear that justice is for sale.
Public financing is one of the most powerful reforms capable of shielding courts from special-interest influence. Candidates accept public financing by agreeing not to seek money from deep-pocketed interests. But without matching funds, or a much larger public contribution, few candidates will join such programs.
As Justice at Stake argued in a similar case in Wisconsin, judges play a unique role in our governmental system and are different from politicians elected to legislative or executive office. In judicial elections, certain limits on free expression, including matching-funds provisions, are appropriate to ensure impartial justice and to avoid a public perception of corruption.
Nationally, spending on state supreme court candidates exploded in the last decade. State supreme court candidates raised $206.9 million between 2000 and 2009, more than double the $83.3 million raised in the 1990s.
Four states adopted public financing to help protect judicial candidates from special-interest influence. But those laws have come under mounting challenges from opponents. The matching-funds provision was central to all four laws, on the theory that candidates would be reluctant to accept one flat public sum if others were free to raise and spend as much as they could.
Brandenburg is executive director of Justice at Stake, a nonpartisan, nonprofit campaign working to keep America’s courts fair and impartial