Protecting the Cornerstone of Justice – Judicial Independence

May 11, 2021

Our ongoing series “Justice at Stake” started with a playbill of sorts to help you discern the intentions of those on either side of a national struggle for what the Framers of the Constitution considered central to our democracy – a fair and impartial court.

First on the stage are those we call the Foot Soldiers, groups dedicated to remaking state courts for narrow business or political interests. Next up are The Funders, those who funnel millions in dark money contributions from corporations and other wealthy special interests directly into the coffers of the Foot Soldiers to target state Supreme Court judges who won’t “toe the line” for their corporate or political agendas.

By all accounts, the Foot Soldiers and the Funders are achieving their Machiavellian goals. Today, one-third of all elected justices now on the bench have withstood at least one $1 million race. Eighty percent of judges said “Yes” when asked if they thought this spending was an effort to shape policy by swaying judicial decisions. The public agrees as well, according to a 2013 poll, when 90% of the respondents said they believe campaign cash affects how a judge rules.

“I never felt so much like a hooker down by the bus station… as I did in a judicial race,” lamented retired Ohio Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Paul Pfeifer. “Everyone interested in contributing has very specific interests. They mean to be buying a vote.”

But in this tragic drama, we’d like to think “the darkest hour is just before the dawn” thanks to a group we are calling The Heroes. These are the stalwart defenders of fair and impartial courts that, regardless of political persuasion, believe we should choose and evaluate judges based on merit and a fair-minded interpretation of the law rather than big money and partisan politics. We loosely categorize these groups as follows:

  • The Intellectuals
    These national advocacy organizations are dedicated to informing policymakers about the growing threat of money and interest groups on judicial independence. The nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice leads the pack with extensive research, analysis, and recommendations on how we can safeguard the courts from partisan manipulation.Other national organizations that make fair courts a central part of their mission include the Center for American Progress, the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, the Piper Fund (a JNP supporter), the National Center for State Courts, and the American Bar Association.
  • The Detectives
    Here we have the sleuths of judicial sovereignty, watch dogs that dig deep under the apple-pie facades common to the Foot Soldiers in search of the Funders and their patrons. Taking center stage is FollowTheMoney.org from the National Institute on Money in Politics, the online home for a massive database on the dark money contributors to political and judicial campaigns. The Center for Responsive Politics serves a similar role via its website OpenSecrets.org.
  • The Citizens Brigade
    Springing to the defense of state courts under attack by the antagonists of justice are members of the Citizens Brigade, which includes yours truly (Justice Not Politics) here in Iowa. JNP was founded in direct response to a million-dollar Foot Soldier campaign by extreme-right religious groups to oust three accomplished Supreme Court justices in the 2010 retention election. Other state-based groups in the Citizens Brigade include Kansans for Fair Courts and Justice Not Politics Alaska (no affiliation to JNP-Iowa) as well as the state chapters of Common Cause and the League of Women Voters.

Intermission Followed by the Final Act
The fight for fair and impartial courts started in America before it was America when the Declaration of Independence called out King George III for attacks on both the judicial branch and individual judges. Today the kings of industry and other special interests are doing the same with unprecedented spending on disinformation campaigns and attack ads against their foes while writing big checks to their allies. Next time, recommendations on how we strengthen protections, here in Iowa and throughout the nation, for what is truly the cornerstone of justice – judicial independence.

Justice Not Politics,
AKA Iowa’s Citizens Brigade