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Polls: Election funding influences judges

  |   Feb. 14, 2002 at 12:34 PM
WASHINGTON, Feb. 14 (UPI) -- Two national surveys released Thursday by a public interest group show voters and state judges are increasingly concerned about the impact of politics on state courts, where judges are usually elected rather than appointed.

The organization, the Justice at Stake Campaign, said voters and judges are particularly concerned about the apparent impact of campaign funding and special interest groups on judicial rulings.

"Voters and state judges are ready to support a variety of reforms that would provide disclosure of special interest activities; increase voter education about judicial candidates and the courts; and improve the tone and conduct of judicial campaigns," the organization said in a statement.

The Justice at Stake Campaign released the poll results at a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington Thursday.

According to the surveys, 76 percent of voters and 26 percent of state judges believe that campaign contributions made to judges have at least some influence on their decisions.

More than two-thirds, or 67 percent, of voters --- including strong majorities of Democrats (69 percent) and Republicans (64 percent) --- feel that "individuals or groups who give money to judicial candidates often get favorable treatment."

Sixty-two percent of voters --- including nearly 90 percent of African American voters --- feel that "there are two systems of justice in the U.S. -- one for the rich and powerful and one for everyone else."

According to their separate survey, judges are also very concerned about inequality in the judicial system. More than 80 percent of judges surveyed are concerned with the idea of two-systems of justice in the United States.

Nine in 10 voters and 8 in 10 state judges say they are quite concerned about special interests trying to use the courts to shape policy on a range of economic and social issues, according to the surveys.

Eighty-four percent of judges and 79 percent of voters express concern about special interest groups buying advertising to influence the outcomes of judicial elections.

Eighty-one percent of voters and 74 percent of judges are concerned that in some states, nearly half of all state supreme court cases involve someone who has given money to one or more of the judges hearing the case, again according to the surveys.

A majority of state judges surveyed, 55 percent, said that the tone and conduct of judicial campaigns has gotten worse over the past 5 years.

Forty-six percent of state judges report being under pressure to raise money for their campaigns.

Only 13 percent of the voters surveyed report having a great deal of information about candidates in judicial elections. Only 22 percent claim to know a great deal about what courts and judges do in their states.

The primary reason voters give for not voting in judicial elections is that they do not know enough about candidates, the voters' survey showed.

Consequently, 90 percent of voters and 87 percent of judges say they are concerned that "because voters have little information about judicial candidates, judges are often selected for reasons other than their qualifications."

Ninety-four percent of state judges and 88 percent of the voters surveyed said they support a requirement "that all political advertisements in judicial elections clearly state who is paying for the ad."

About 9 in 10 judges and voters believe "states should require that all judicial candidates disclose the individuals, parties, or organizations who donate money to their campaigns."

Support for disclosure requirements crosses both party and ideological lines: 84 percent of Democrats surveyed, 89 percent of Republicans, 90 percent of those who describe themselves as liberals and 86 percent of those who describe themselves as conservatives said they strongly support the reform proposals.

The surveys showed that 86 percent of voters and 70 percent of judges support the idea of establishing independent citizen boards "to inform the public about misleading or inaccurate advertising in judicial campaigns."

Voter guides before judicial elections was supported by more than 90 percent of the voters surveyed, an 75 percent of the judges.

Ninety-three percent of state judges and 82 percent of voters support a voluntary proposal for judicial candidates "to condemn negative advertising done on their behalf," according to the surveys.

Ninety-seven percent of judges believe "judicial candidates should never make promises during elections about how they will rule in cases that may come before them," again, according to their survey.

Finally, the polls show both voters and state judges offering general support for campaign finance reform proposals for judicial elections.

Seventy-eight percent of voters, and 71 percent of state judges, support limiting campaign contributions to judicial candidates.

The Supreme Court of the United States has generally supported campaign contribution limits when the "compelling interest" behind them is to contain corruption.

According to the polls, 80 percent of voters, and 61 percent of judges, support a general proposal to provide public financing of judicial elections: Majorities of Democrats (63 percent) and Republicans (51 percent), and liberals (65 percent) and conservatives (53 percent) strongly favor the general proposal.

For the voters surveyed, spending restrictions in judicial elections is the most popular element of a public financing proposal --- 67 percent of voters strongly support spending restrictions or limiting spending to amounts provided in public election funds.

However, the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently ruled against personal spending limits, as opposed to voluntary limits in exchange for public financing.

Merit selection and retention of judges is supported by voters and state supreme court justices, according to the surveys.

Seventy percent of voters, and 59 percent of state justices support a general merit selection and retention proposal.

However, lower-level judges were generally less supportive of merit selection, except in Pennsylvania, which has been considering a proposal to institute merit selection of appellate judges.

Poll results were taken from a national survey of 1,000 registered voters conducted Oct. 30 through Nov. 7, and is subject to a margin of error of +/- 3.1 percent.

A separate national survey of 2,428 state judges was conducted by mail from Nov. 5 through Jan. 2. The second survey included 188 state supreme court justices, 527 appellate court judges and 1,713 lower-court judges. New Jersey judges were advised not to participate in the survey by their state board, and are excluded from the total sample.3

The surveys were conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and American Viewpoint.

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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