Is Louisiana a judicial hellhole where decisions by state judges are influenced by campaign contributions? Apparently, the Louisiana legislature and business lobbying groups think so. In the recent legislative session, laws were passed taking away the authority of state judges to make decisions involving small claims above $10,000. Evidently elected judges often do not make fair decisions. Or at least that what insurance companies and other business groups want you to believe.
Under the new law signed by Governor Edwards, Louisiana’s threshold for jury trials will drop from from $50,000 to $10,000. What this means is that insurance companies can demand a jury trial for even smaller collision cases where no injuries are involved. Jury trials for reduced claims means the cost of bringing a lawsuit will significantly increase.
Insurance lobbyists argue that “auto claim disputes in the state presently heard before elected judges, providing opportunity to shop for favorable venues for frivolous cases.” The implication is that elected judges receive campaign contributions, and are influenced in their decisions by plaintiff lawyers who contribute. If this is the case, then why didn’t the legislature address such judicial favoritism?
Can campaign contributions accepted by those seeking to step up to the bench and wear black robes influence a judge’s decisions? To many observers, such contributions pose a great problem for those who want impartiality.
Even if a judge swears not to be swayed by campaign contributions, there is a real perception problem here. Let’s face it — lawyers who practice before elected judges are often the prime source of campaign contributions. And too often, vested interests that have a case pending before an elected judge are significant sources for the same campaign contributions. So how do you deal with the conflicts, or the perception of such, when it comes to campaign funds?
The majority of voters in Louisiana want more accountability, and would like to have judicial candidates pass by them for approval on a regular basis. But how do you deal with the conflicts, or the perception of such, when it comes to campaign funds?
There’s an easy way to accomplish this goal. In most jurisdictions, it doesn’t even require an act of the legislature. Louisiana, and most other states could, by their own court rules, require that a judge recuse him or herself from ruling on any case where either the attorney, the attorney’s law firm, or a party to the case has made a campaign contribution to this judge. Prohibit the campaign dollars, and the public gets a much better chance of seeing both impartial decisions rendered, and having a system in place where there is a clear perception that both sides are getting a fair shake.
Some will argue that appointing rather than electing judges the way to go in Louisiana. But this raises the question — who will do the picking? To paraphrase Huey Long, “I’m all for appointin’ judges as long as I get to do the appointin’.” After all, most appointed judges receive their job through the good ole’ boy network. It’s not what you know, but who you know, and few get these plumb appointments for life without being well plugged in to the political system. So those who sanctimoniously talk about the politics involved in electing judges are turning a blind eye to the heavy-handed politics of an appointed system.
If legislators on the state level want to see an immediate improvement in the perception of the state judicial system, changing the rules of raising campaign funds will be an important first step. Oh, there will be some hollering from some who sit on the bench. But on balance, it is a solution that merits some review. And it is a lot better system than lifetime appointments where the guys and gals in black robes show a disdain for both scrutiny and accountability.
Peace and Justice
Jim Brown’s syndicated column appears each week in numerous newspapers throughout the nation and on websites worldwide. You can read all his past columns and see continuing updates at http://www.jimbrownusa.com.