Former Alabama Chief Justice Shares Firsthand Perspective on Judicial Elections and Impartial Courts

March 19, 2015

AlabamaIn a recent Politico piece, the former chief justice of Alabama's supreme court offered a firsthand perspective on the relationship between electing judges and maintaining impartial courts and judges. According to Sue Bell Cobb, "Donors want clarity, certainty even, that the judicial candidates they support view the world as they do and will rule accordingly. To them, the idea of impartial and fair judges is an abstraction. They want to know that the investments they make by donating money to a candidate will yield favorable results." She went on to note:

In my experience on the bench, I saw plenty of cases in which I was certain that campaign money played no role in the outcome. But I also saw cases in which I was concerned that fellow justices consistently ruled a certain way because business community backing alone had brought them to the court.

Cobb has the dubious distinction of having participated in the most expensive judicial election to date, with $13 million spent in her 2006 statewide race for chief justice. Cobb herself raised $2.6 million, while her opponent raised nearly $5 million. Outside groups accounted for the remaining funds.

Other state supreme court justices have shared similar sentiments to those expressed by Cobb in the Politico article. According to former Texas chief justice and O'Connor Advisory Committee member Wallace Jefferson, "In a close race, the judge who solicits the most money from lawyers and their clients has the upper hand. But then the day of reckoning comes. When you appear before a court, you ask how much your lawyer gave to the judge's campaign. If the opposing counsel gave more, you are cynical."

Justice Paul Pfeifer of the Ohio Supreme Court summed it up: "I never felt so much like a hooker down by the bus station . . . as I did in a judicial race. Everyone interested in contributing has very specific interests. They mean to be buying a vote."

In 2012, Chief Justice Cobb participated in IAALS' roundtable, Cornerstones of State Judicial Selection: Laying the Foundation for Quality Court Systems and JudgesRoundtable participants included plaintiff and defense lawyers, citizens involved in judicial nominating and evaluating processes, representatives of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, members of the business community, and non-profit leaders—participants from across the political spectrum. This diverse group reached consensus on the following "cornerstones" for contested judicial elections:

  • Campaign finance laws should be in place that limit contributions and timeframes within which judges may fundraise, encourage judicial candidates to observe voluntary expenditure limits, and require campaign financing disclosure.
  • State codes of judicial conduct should require judicial disqualification/recusal when appropriate. (The Alabama legislature passed a judicial disqualification law in 2014.)
  • States should establish campaign oversight committees to advise and educate judicial candidates and to monitor and comment on campaign conduct.
  • Voters should have access to broad-based and objective information about the qualifications of the candidates.