Professor Jon Hanson led a panel titled “The Price of Justice: Campaign Finance Deregulation and the Threat to State Judicial Elections.” Ellen Weintraub, the Chair of the Federal Election Commission, Alicia Bannon, Counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice, and Bert Brandenburg, the Executive Director of Justice at Stake, took part in the panel.
In this past election, Ms. Weintraub informed attendees, a total of $7 billion dollars was spent on the Presidential and Congressional races. After the audible gasps quieted down around the room, she quickly noted that people get excited about the number. She, however, was not overly concerned about the bottom line number. What concerns her is whether the money is being raised and spent legally and transparently. Are the people accountable? Does it promote participation? Does it protect the right to speak truth to power? Power doesn’t just reside in the government, but it also resides in powerful members of society. Society has to speak truth to those members as well. Do we want to live in a society where access to more money allows an individual to have a larger voice?
Mr. Brandenburg commented on the state’s ability to speak truth to power by pointing out that state courts are the engines of justice in America. When people obtain justice in the U.S. it is almost always through the state courts. They handle 98% of cases. Mr. Brandenburg noted that it used to be that judicial elections were not very political. For the last 12 or 13 years, however, money has caused a change in the mechanism of judicial selection. We want judges to be accountable to the constitution, not partisan politics.
Ms. Weintrab noted disclosure can help, and the Supreme Court has indicated it agrees that disclosure is a good thing. It shows who is in the pocket of politicians, and increases accountability for political ads. Disclosure can make a difference in elections when people find out where the money is coming from. Ms. Bannon added that disclosure can play a role in helping reformers see where the money is coming from in order to make the case for corruption. She further added that there are two strategies for reform. First, there should be stronger recusal rules for judges in state courts. Secondly, there should be an increase in public financing for judicial elections. Such an increase would give candidates funds without having to rely on outside groups.