It’s All About the Judges


Respectfully submitted by Lawrence E. Rafferty (rafflaw)-Guest Blogger

Over the years we have heard the stories about Supreme Court justices coming under fire for attending political rallies and symposiums and for taking gifts from political organizations.  Abe Fortas and his subsequent resignation from the Supreme Court is one instance that comes to mind.  More recently, of course,  Justice Clarence Thomas’ exploits come to mind.  “Justice Clarence Thomas is an ethics problem in a black robe. Just eight months after ThinkProgress broke the story of Thomas’ attendance at a Koch-sponsored political fundraiser, we learn that Thomas doesn’t just do unethical favors for wealthy right-wing donors — they also do expensive favors for him.

Leading conservative donor Harlan Crow, whose company often litigates in federal court, provided $500,000 to allow Thomas’s wife to start a Tea Party group and he once gave Thomas a $19,000 Bible that belonged to Frederick Douglass. The American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank which frequently files briefs in Thomas’ Court, also gave Thomas a $15,000 gift.”  Think Progress

What we may have missed in those earlier discussions is how important the lower courts and appeals court judges are in enforcing corporate or political legislation and policies.  What would you say if corporations and partisan foundations or think tanks and oil companies were deeply involved in making sure the judges know who their real “friends” are?

“According to a recent investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, “conservative foundations, multinational oil companies and a prescription drug maker were the most frequent sponsors of more than 100 expense-paid educational seminars attended by federal judges over a 4 1/2-year period.” About 185 federal judges participated in these “educational” events which were sponsored by multinational corporations such as ExxonMobil, Pfizer and BP.

These seminars are clearly designed to encourage judicial principles that would benefit the sponsors. According to the investigators, Justice Carl A. Barbier happens to have attended at least one of these conferences in 2009, which was sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute, Shell Oil Company, and Exxon Mobil Corporation. Barbier has since dismissed a wrongful death case against Exxon and now finds himself presiding over the BP Deepwater Horizon cases. In an ongoing trial, it is up to him to determine whether or not BP is grossly negligent and liable for tens of billions of dollars in Clean Water Act damages.”  Common Dreams

Do we want any of our Judges or Justices attending corporate sponsored “seminars”?  Is it a stretch to think that Justice can be bought so easily and so cheaply?  As the above Common Dreams article pointed out, two Pennsylvania judges are already spending time in jail for accepting bribes from the private prison industry.  “Sponsoring seminars and conferences are not the only ways that profiteers have found a way to interact with the judiciary. Pennsylvania Judges Mark Ciavarilla Jr. and Michael Conahan are respectively serving 28 year and 18 year prison sentences after being accused of accepting millions of dollars from the private prison industry and subsequently handing out harsh juvenile sentences to fill their cells.”  Common Dreams

When we allow any of our governmental branches to be bought and sold by corporate entities and political foundations, do any non corporate litigants stand a chance in court against some of these corporate “sponsors”?  Was it just a coincidence that Justice Barbier dismissed the wrongful death case against Exxon who sponsored one of the “seminars” that he attended?  Should a Justice recuse himself/herself from any case where the litigant is or has been a sponsor at a seminar or symposium attended by the Justice?

Retired United States Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor recently went on record that she thinks all judges should be appointed and not elected in order to reduce corporate or party influence on the decision-making duties of the judge.  “Illinois and other states that continue to have judicial elections are hurting the impartiality of judges, according to the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor told the packed Hammerschmidt Chapel at Elmhurst College that judges running for office makes them politicians, beholden to campaign contributions and political parties. She said even the most scrupulous of judges loses credibility in the public’s eye when he or she needs to be a fundraiser and candidate, as well as a judge.

“Studies have shown that judges are influenced by campaign contributions,” O’Connor said Thursday during the college’s annual Rudolph G. Schade Lecture on History, Ethics and the Law.”  Sun-Times 

While I agree with Justice O’Connor that electing judges can be problematic, I am not convinced that appointing judges reduces the political and donor influence possibilities when compared to electing them.  However, anything that can be done to reduce the ability of corporations and wealthy foundations from “buying” a judge or Justice is a good thing.

I submit that the same thing that is corrupting our politics, thanks in large part to the Citizens United decision,  is possibly corrupting our judiciary.  What is that corrupting influence?  MONEY.  Justice O’Connor touched upon when she stated that a judge’s impartiality is impacted when a donor is involved.  If she is correct, wouldn’t it make sense that Justice Thomas or Justice Barbier, or any judge at any level, including the Supreme Court,  be required to at least recuse themselves from proceedings that may be related in any way to one of their corporate or campaign sponsors or donors?

It sound like a no brainer to me?  Otherwise, how can individual citizens litigating against large corporate entities feel comfortable that the Judge or Justice that they are standing in front of is going to be impartial in their respective case?  What do you think?


43 thoughts on “It’s All About the Judges”

  1. Of course, I play the racist card w/ part of my tongue in cheek. Are there people who are anti Thomas racist. Who would argue that? Are all people who are anti Thomas racist, of course not. I’m just comparing and contrasting to the Eric Holder thread last week.

    Saw a momma grizzly and two cubs within 250 yards this morning. I’m still smiling about that. Also saw many bison and elk, had some for dinner both nights!

  2. Bron, But remember the most important rule, only conservatives are racists. Didn’t you get the memo??

  3. Swarthmore mom:

    Doesnt George Soros contribute to Think Progress, Moveon.Org and other left wing think tanks and politicians?

    I am guessing liberal judges have been handed millions as well.

    This isnt about money, it is about philosophy. That is why the left is upset. If this were just about some judges getting laid at the beach or getting some tee times at Pebble Beach, they wouldnt be saying anything.

  4. nick spinelli:

    I remember the hearings, they were brutal. That man has put up with all kinds of nastiness from the left. Scalia’s boy, stupid, token, etc. are things I have seen said about him.

    It is really pretty sick if you ask me.

  5. “Crow is the son of the late real estate magnate Trammell Crow, who was, in his day, the country’s largest landlord. In a $2.2 billion deal, the Trammell Crow Company was acquired in 2006 by CB Richard Ellis Group. Harlan Crow heads the holding company that manages the family fortune.

    Through Crow Holdings, he has given $1.5 million to Karl Rove’s group, American Crossroads, and an additional $650,000 to Restore Our Future, the super PAC working for Mitt Romney’s election. He personally gave $150,000 to Restore Our Future.

    Crow has solid conservative credentials. He is a trustee of the American Enterprise Institute and was one of the backers of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the group that effectively assailed John Kerry’s war record in 2008.” Forbes Crow is a Dallasite.

  6. rafflaw:

    I see why you guys on the left are so upset now.

    A list of seminar topics:

    “The Moral Foundations of Capitalism,” “Corporations and the Limits of Criminal Law” and “Terrorism, Climate & Central Planning: Challenges to Liberty & the Rule of Law.”

    So if they were attending seminat topics like: The Moral Foundations of Marxism, Corporations, Evil Scourges or Malignant Monsters, Global Warming Requires Central Planning; I am guessing there wouldnt be any problems.

    Oh, the times they are a changing.

  7. “Justice Thomas did a lot more than attend a seminar. He accepted cash! He should be impeached. He won’t be but he should be.”

    Justice Holmes, beat me to the draw on this and I couldn’t agree more. Isn’t it rather curious that we have reached a time where Thomas can behave so unethically and yet there is nary an uproar? The two smartest things the conservative movement ever did was pack our court system with their judges and pack our local school-boards with their disciples. Most people who have been educated in the last 30 years have dim knowledge of the implications of our Constitution and so are unconcerned with our judicial system going rogue. As for Justice O’Connor she recently admitted that the 2000 SCOTUS decision electing Bush was probably a wrong one. It seems she is arriving at the party much too late.

    Great job as usual Larry.

  8. Justice O’Connor is on to something here about not electing judges. Someone should tell her about The Missouri Plan and how that state and others have adopted a non partisan appointment system that has input from the lawyers and an appointment board with members from across the spectrum of state activity.

  9. I fail to see any differences between the condemning Judges who have no mercy and the heckling shadow religious people who felt like they needed to condemn Jesus and the disciples at every opportunity. The legal system being like it is makes laws to even make the nude body indecent and sex bad too. They make the minds of people unbalanced regarding them.

  10. Justice Thomas did a lot more than attend a seminar. He accepted cash! He should be impeached. He won’t be but he should be. A Supreme Court justice who so regularly flaunts the most basic rules regarding taking money and benefits from litigants in his court doesn’t belong on the bench, any bench let alone the SUPREME COURT. No progressive judge would get away with this…..

  11. It may be that the federal judiciary has not had time to digest the changes in codes of conduct:

    For the first time since 1992 The Code of Conduct for United States Judges has been updated.

    The new code of ethics will take effect on July 1, 2009.

    The code is composed of several canons as follows:






    (New Code of Conduct, PDF). Two of the canons are worthy of further note.

    The second and fifth canons.

    (New Judicial Code of Conduct). Heck, that means they have only had FOUR YEARS to get the message.

    Wonder why those “educational gatherings” that rafflaw mentioned in his post today don’t teach them these things?

  12. Justice Marilyn Kelly of Michigan Supreme Court filed a “Michigan Judicial Selection Task Force Report & Recommendations” in April 2012, with help of US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. It had many recommendations addressing Michigan’s systemic “judicial corruption” problems tied directly to “Campaign Donations.” Click on

  13. There can never be justice for all as long as there is a perception that the courts are biased in any way. The Supremes are appointed by potus so how can they be anything other than payback or other sort of “plant?”

  14. Get rid of Citizens United (what a farce of a name), public funding of all elections and prohibit all donations (bribes) except to a central fund set up for distributing these monies.

  15. It seems often these seminars are mostly fronts for laundering entertainment, goods, or services to get around the normal direct bribery statutes. It is often evidenced by the excesses of these seminars, their venues, etc.

    That said, judges should not have to answer to anything other than the law and the constitution. But I feel these types of activities happen essentially for two reasons. That there are those who want undue favoritism and the other being that the system is unfair or unequal and balancing needs to be met.

    If these two issues were addressed we would have lesser amounts of these corruptions.

  16. “[should] any judge at any level, including the Supreme Court, be required to at least recuse themselves from proceedings that may be related in any way to one of their corporate or campaign sponsors or donors?”

    Absolutely. Don’t judicial ethics require recusal, not just on the fact of bias, but also the appearance of bias? imo, any kind of favor done for a judge provides a basis for bias, real or by appearance. But then, aren’t they part of the elite that is above the law?

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