Judge Ruling in Favor of Big Contributor Ruled Illegal by U.S. Supreme Court

Judge Ruling in Favor of Big Contributor Ruled Illegal by U.S. Supreme Court

Thursday, June 11, 2009




Judge Ruling in Favor of Big Contributor Ruled Illegal by U.S. Supreme Court

When a coal company spent $3 million to help elect the Chief Justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court and that Chief Justice turned around and overturned a $50 million jury judgment against the company, many commentators thought it stunk of corruption and that the judge should have recused himself from a case involving his biggest political supporter.

This week, the US Supreme Court agreed.  The Court argued in the much anticipated case, Caperton v Massey, that a judge must recuse her or himself from hearing a case when there is "the probability of actual bias on the part of the judge or decision maker."  This is, of course, a high bar and one that will only rarely be reached in practice -- but a $3 million contribution equal to more than all other campaign spending combined amounts to "extreme" facts requiring recusal, since otherwise there would be no limit on judges' ability to decide cases involving their biggest political supporters. 

The ruling was also significant because it dealt with not direct campaign contributions, but independent expenditures uncoordinated with the Chief Justice's campaign.  This has given campaign finance scholars some hope that there are five votes for at least some regulation of independent campaign spending, such as 527 committees, which can spend unlimited amounts of money in elections. 

Judicial Independence is Under Attack:  As we've highlighted in a previous Dispatch, the problem of money in judicial elections has been growing fast.  Between 2000 and 2007, state Supreme Court candidates raised twice as much in campaign contributions than was raised in all of the 1990s.  And this isn't happening by accident.  Business groups and conservative activists, including Karl Rove, have specifically targeted these races because the potential reward is great, yet the cost of flooding these races with cash is relatively low compared with other statewide or national races that often have less of a direct payoff for contributors.

In West Virginia in particular, the appearance of corruption has cast a pale over the state's highest court.  The previous chief justice was also involved in a scandal related to Massey Energy for earlier having refused to recuse himself from the same case that caused the current controversy.  In that instance pictures surfaced of the chief justice vacationing with Massey's CEO in Monte Carlo at the same time that Massey was appealing the lower court ruling against them that the West Virginia Supreme Court ended up overturning.  Thankfully, in that instance the chief justice was voted out.

Restoring Judicial Independence:  In many of the 36 state that elect judges, both the public and judges themselves are losing faith in the process.  But there are several that have systems which prevent or deter outrageous spending on judicial campaigns and the appearance or reality of injustice that results.

  • Clean Judicial ElectionsNorth Carolina and New Mexico have both adopted public financing of judicial elections.  North Carolina's extremely popular program has seen majority participation among candidates, and almost all winning candidates are now clean elections participants.  Public financing of judicial campaigns is also supported by the American Bar Association, which adopted it as an official policy in 2002
  • Merit Selection with Retention Elections:  The so-called "Missouri plan" combines independent merit selection with a process of retention elections where voters can recall a justice if unsatisfied with his or her job performance.  Such systems have almost uniformly been free of expensive campaign spending and politicized campaigns, and these systems instill confidence in the public.  In Missouri, 68 percent of voters trust the Missouri Supreme Court to adhere to the letter of the law rather than their own political beliefs.

Both of these systems work well to squeeze special-interest money out of the judicial system, helping to ensure a fair hearing for consumers and workers.  Hopefully the notoriety that the Caperton case has generated will inspire more states to take back their judiciaries from the corporate interests that have hijacked them in many places.

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Major Victory for Transparency in Elections

The District of Columbia has obtained an agreement from Sequoia Voting Systems to review a vast amount of information about one of their voting machines, which somehow recorded thousands of extra ballots during the September primaries.  Investigators assembled by the council will have access to the source code and documents related to its creation, as well as blueprints for the machine hardware.  The company had initially balked at releasing any information, refusing to comply with a council subpoena last fall.  The company then tried to demand a $20 million bond insuring the secrecy of the information.  They relented just prior to being sued by the council.  "It is certainly going to serve as a precedent not just for further investigations in the District of Columbia, but around the country," said John Bonifaz, legal director for Voter Action.

This investigation follows California's recent investigation into irregularities in Sequoia voting machines, which revealed that the machines actually had a delete button, with no safety features, to erase the supposedly unalterable vote tally.  This shocking feature is on voting machines in over a dozen states.  Now with the phantom DC votes we are getting another look inside a machine, and given the track record of electronic voting machines, no one is expecting it to be a model of security and reliability.  What happened in DC just reinforces the fact that paper ballot elections are the only reliable and secure alternative for our elections.  And the fact that private companies have repeatedly thwarted attempts to investigate irregularities in the votes tallied on their machines makes clear that privatized elections are a direct threat to our democracy.

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Report: Dropout Rates Across the States

As President Obama mentioned earlier this year, the United States has "one of the highest high-school dropout rates out of any industrialized nation."  Currently only about 7 out of 10 public school students graduate high-school with a diploma.  Similar issues with graduation rates exist on the college level.  On average, across the nation, less than 60 percent of first-year students who enter a four-year college receive a degree from that institution within six years.  Getting a high-quality education is especially an issue for low-income and minority students.  According to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, only 20% of "Hispanic young people graduate high school ready for college, and only a quarter of low-income students earn a degree or credential post high school."  

During his first address to Congress, President Obama emphasized the fundamental role that quality education will play in revitalizing our economy. Noting that in today's global economy a high school education is no longer sufficient, the President asked "every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training," and has established a goal that "by 2020 America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world."

A new report published this week by Education Week and the Editorial Projects in Education (EPE) Research Center, entitled Diplomas Count 2009, highlights the high school dropout rates in each state.  According to the study, graduation rates  across states are significantly different.  New Jersey had the highest graduation rate, 82.1%; while in Nevada only 47.3% of students graduated high school.  In addition, there is great discrepancy between the graduation rates of different demographic populations.  The graduation rate of Non-Hispanic whites rose to 76.1%, while Hispanic and African-American graduation rates rose to 55% and 51.2%, respectively.  

While most school districts performed at the level that experts would predict based on factors such as poverty rates and spending per student, there were districts that had graduation rates higher than expected. For example, in 2006, despite the fact that more than half of the district's students are minorities and 6 in 10 are from low-income families the Texarkana Independent School District in Texas had a 79% graduation rate.  According to an article by the Christian Science Monitor, district officials believe that multiple factors led to their success, including a "focus on early education and providing high schoolers on the verge of dropping out with alternative education paths."

Helping Students Prepare for College: In addition, the report outlines the importance of defining "college readiness" and providing a road map that will helps students identify what it will take to be successful in their post-secondary institution. Hopefully, helping students chart a high school course load that is geared towards preparing them for college will lead to a reduction in college drop out rates in the future.  Today, approximately 20 states have articulated the skills and information base they feel is needed by a freshman in college.  While many of the standards set forward are related to academic course work, seven states include "soft skills", like time management, as part of college readiness standards.

Lastly, the report studies state data systems that have been implemented to track students and help administrators evaluate their academic progress in high school and at postsecondary institutions.  The ARRA has appropriated approximately $250 million in new competitive grants for such systems.



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Research Roundup

How the downturn is effecting jobs, youth and unemployment insurance systems:

New Studies on Health Disparities:

The Clean Energy Economy - A Pew study finds that between 1998 and 2007, jobs in the clean energy economy grew at a national rate of 9.1 percent while traditional jobs grew by only 3.7 percent. These 770,000 jobs extend to all 50 states and engage a wide variety of workers while generating new industries.

Spending by Another Name: The 2009 Ohio Tax Expenditure Report - In examing a state report on tax credits, deductions and exemptions, Policy Matters Ohio finds that the states loses more than $7 billion in foregone revenue each year and suggests that, to deal with the revenue crisis, the state limit or eliminate unnecessary credits and exemptions.


Judge Ruling in Favor of Big Contributor Ruled Illegal by U.S. Supreme Court

Justice At Stake Campaign
Brennan Center for Justice - Fair Courts
American Bar Association - Report of the Commission on Public Financing of Judicial Campaigns
American Judicature Society - Judicial Selection in the States
Progressive States Network - Shutting the Courtroom Door: How the Corporate Right Mobilized in the States
North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections - Judicial Elections
Democracy North Carolina — A Profile of the Judicial Public Financing Program, 2004-2006
North Carolina Judicial Campaign Reform Act Summary
New York Times - Rendering Justice, With One Eye on Re-election
New York Times - Justices Tell Judges Not to Rule on Major Backers

Major Victory for Transparency in Elections

Progressive States Network - Preventing Election Privatization
Progressive States Network - Paper Ballots
Washington Post - Firm to Give DC Information About its Voting Machines
Voters Unite - Vendors are Undermining the Structure of US Elections
Voter Action

Report: Dropout Rates Across the States

Diplomas Count 2009 

Diplomas and Dropouts:  Which Colleges Actually Graduate Their Students (and Which Don't) 

US high school graduation rate climbs to 69.2 percent 

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Statement on President Obama's Call for 'A Complete and Competitive American Education

Obama: High School Education Not Enough 

Fast Track to College Act would lead nation closer to goals Obama set forth


The Stateside Dispatch is written and edited by:

Nathan Newman, Interim Executive Director
Caroline Fan, Immigration and Workers' Rights Policy Specialist
Julie Schwartz, Broadband and Economic Development Policy Specialist
Christian Smith-Socaris, Election Reform Policy Specialist
Adam Thompson, Health Care Policy Specialist
Julie Bero, Executive Administrator and Outreach Associate
Austin Guest, Communications Specialist
Mike Maiorini, Online Technology Manager
Marisol Thomer, Outreach Coordinator

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