Justice O'Connor Criticizes Campaign Finance Ruling

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Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said Tuesday that judicial independence in the state courts will be severely compromised by last week's Supreme Court decision striking down bans on corporate spending in elections. More than 80 percent of the judges in the states are elected.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Madeleine Brand.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And Im Robert Siegel.

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day OConnor weighed in today on a controversial decision by her former colleagues on the high court. She said that judicial independence in state courts will be severely compromised by last weeks ruling striking down bans on corporate spending on elections. More than 80 percent of state judges are elected. And while these elections used to be low-profile affairs, big money has transformed them in recent years.

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: Since her retirement five years ago, OConnor has traveled the country, tirelessly defending the idea of judicial independence. As she put it today, two of the complaints that the nations founders had against King George centered on the absence of judicial independence in the colonial courts.

Ms. SANDRA DAY OCONNOR (Former Supreme Court Justice): The founders realized there has to be someplace where being right is more important than being popular or powerful, and where fairness trumps strength. And in our country, that place is supposed to be the courtroom.

TOTENBERG: But unlike in the federal system where judges have life tenure, in most states, judges must stand for competitive election on a regular basis. And in recent years, special-interest spending has grown exponentially in state judicial elections, with the record amount of money spent being nearly $14.5 million for a single judicial seat in Alabama.

Today, speaking at a conference at Georgetown University, Justice OConnor said the situation is likely to get worse with last weeks Supreme Court decision.

Ms. OCONNOR: And invalidating some of the existing checks on campaign spending, the majority in Citizens United has signaled that the problem of campaign contributions in judicial elections might get considerably worse and quite slim.

TOTENBERG: The flaw in the system of judicial election, she said, is that theyre aimed at holding candidates accountable, not at insulating them from political influence.

Ms. OCONNOR: Increasingly expensive and negative campaigns for judicial office erode both the impartiality of the judiciary and the publics perception of that.

TOTENBERG: OConnor said that in her view, theres only one fix for the system now.

Ms. OCONNOR: The best way to stop the damage done by judicial elections is, probably, to go to a somewhat different system.

TOTENBERG: She recommended the so-called merit selection system used in a dozen states, in which a committee of lawyers and lay people recommend a slate of qualified individuals to the governor for appointment. And once appointed, judges stand for retention elections at regular intervals.

In striking down the ban on corporate contributions last week, the Supreme Court reversed a major campaign finance decision written by OConnor just seven years ago, and her displeasure was palpable. Ignoring the role of special-interest money, particularly in judicial election, she said, is like ignoring an alligator in your bath tub.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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