Rent-a-Justice: Louisiana Supreme Court Faces Allegations of Favoritism for Contributors

A recent study has cast serious questions over the influence of campaign contributions on the members of the Louisiana Supreme Court. The study by my former Tulane Law School colleague, Vernon Palmer, and Loyola assistant professor of economics John Levendis finds a disturbing correlation between contributions and voting on the Court. It is only the latest allegation rocking one of our state supreme courts this year. [Update: Tulane has issued an apology for some errors in this study]

The study to be published in the Tulane Law Review is being cited as support for a rule that would require Louisiana Supreme Court members to recuse themselves from deciding cases that involve campaign contributors. Palmer and Levendis studied decisions over the last 14 years.

In 181 civil cases between 1992 and 2006, the nine justices have been significantly influenced by campaign donations in making their decisions, says the study, which is soon to be published in the Tulane Law Review.

. . .

The study found that in 47 percent of the cases reviewed — 85 cases involving total campaign donations of about $400,000 — there was at least one donor before the court who had contributed to a justice’s campaign.

In cases involving a single donor, the study found, Supreme Court justices voted for their contributor’s position, on average, about 65 percent of the time, and no justice voted for his or her contributor’s position less than 55 percent of the time.

According to the report, Chief Justice Pascal Calogero and Associate Justice John Weimer voted for positions advanced by their campaign contributors at much higher levels than the rest of the court: 81 percent and 80 percent of the time, respectively.

When it came to cases in which both sides made campaign donations to the same justice but one side gave more money, the study found that Weimer and Associate Justice Catherine Kimball usually voted for the side that gave the most.

When a defendant was the bigger donor, the analysis showed, Kimball ruled for the defendant’s position 61 percent of the time, and Weimer, 75 percent of the time.

If the plaintiff’s side gave larger amounts, Kimball voted for the plaintiff 67 percent of the time, and Weimer, 90 percent of the time, the study said.

Critics have long cited the influence of such contributions as inimical to the independence and integrity of the state court system. Texas previously faced the same allegations of influence and currently has scandals with regard to some of its members. Click here. Other state supreme courts also face controversies this year. Click here and here

For the story out of Tulane, click here

11 thoughts on “Rent-a-Justice: Louisiana Supreme Court Faces Allegations of Favoritism for Contributors”

  1. Another interesting article that in my opinion supplements and expands Bronar’s and Lott’s study:

    Here the subject is Congress so we are off the original thread topic abit, but since large blocks of the state judiciary are elected and do receive campaign contributions, the same dynamics may obtain to a degree.

  2. Studies such as this one by Palmer and Levendis should be taken with a bit a skepticism. In a paper in the Journal of Law and Economics, Stephen Bronars and John Lott (1997) show that there is great difficulty in showing that campaign contributions influenced decisions of members of Congress. The problem is “how does one discern officials/candidates being influenced by contributions and contributors giving money to those whose values match their own?” Bronars and Lott do this by ocntrolling for the ideological bent of the elected official.

    This task is much more difficult in courts than in legislatures where ideological bent is easier to determine.

    What is really troubling to me is that this article is coming out in a law journal reviewed by Palmer’s own students, who are unlikely to have much sophistication in econometric techniques, and are unlikely to be familiar with the public choice economics literature, such as the Bronars and Lott piece.

    Further, neither the the Tulane Law Review, nor the authors have made their study available (I have sent a request in to Levendis, but he has not responded, out for Mardi Gras, no doubt). Yet, they have made their article news to the media, but skeptic critics will have to wait.

    On the other hand, the problem with an elected state judiciary goes far beyond possible influence by campaign contributions, but rather influence by voters in the first place. If elections actually made state supreme court judges decisions accountable to the voters, decisions would certainly be based on something other than the law.
    Isn’t that what happens when officials are elected? They are held accountable by those who participate in the elections, voters and donors alike.

    However, once elected to the Louisiana Supreme Court, justices are almost never thrown out, so justices do not rely on having to stay in the good graces of contributors.

    Econ Prof

  3. Hi D.W.,
    Thanks for your response, and I definitely agree. Bribery in criminal cases is probably very rare, but unchecked (and in some instances, unbalanced) ambition of some judges may not be. However, I should have been more careful to distinguish between the two. My apologies for that error. 🙂

  4. Hi Susan,

    I think outright bribery is probably fairly rare, but campaign contributions are another matter as the topic shows.

    When you investigate the national scene, what becomes apparent in state after state is the concerted effort on the part of the business community to secure the election of judges friendly to their interests. And the tactics employed are increasingly those we have seen in the political arena: negative attack ads and issues lists. Two proven vote-getters are attacks on judge’s criminal cases (too lenient) and immigration cases (too lenient). These are masks for the true agenda.

    A lab study is the current Wisconsin Supreme Court race between county circuit Judge Michael Gableman and the incumbent Justice Louis Butler. Wisconsin, like Minnesota, prior to White, has a bar association set of standards for judicial elections. These are now being run through a blender by one side of the contest.

  5. This kind of judicial favoritism in state SC justices is disturbing enough. I shudder to think that such favoritism might be also happening in lower courts in criminal cases.

    It is bad enough that the average or poor defendant, who may well be totally innocent, cannot get the services of a good criminal defense attorney, and is therefore at a much higher risk of being convicted. The idea that a judge on criminal circuit courts could be influenced by money to fix a case for either prosecution or defense is even more alarming, given the considerable power such judges have.

  6. A huge and growing problem for the state judiciary. One of my pet areas of concern.

    Outside interests are increasingly trying to skew the process in their favor; even to the selection of the judges.

    Minnesota had an interesting canon in place that forbid judges running for office to elaborate or even state their positions on various issues. This was challenged by the Republican party and went to the Supreme Court as a first amendment case: Republican Party of Minnesota v White (2002) where the Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. This of course politicized the Minnesota process.

    In Missouri, something akin in terms of politicization:,570,993

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