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Moyers: How Corporations and Right-Wing Groups Take Aim at Judges Whose Rulings They Dislike

There’s a movement afoot to punish judges for decisions that offend political partisans.
 
 
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When the National Football League ended its lockout of the professional referees and the refs returned to call the games, all across the country players, fans, sponsors and owners breathed a sigh of relief. Fans were grateful for the return of qualified judges to keep things on the up and up.

After the now infamous Seattle Seahawks-Green Bay Packers game, when questionable calls by the replacement refs led to a disputed 14-12 win by the Seahawks, even union-busting Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, the pride of Janesville, Wisconsin, became – briefly – fans of organized labor, calling for a negotiated peace and bringing the real refs back on the field.

In Baltimore, when the professional referees returned for their first game of the season, fans gave them a standing ovation.  One held a sign: “Finally! We get to yell at real refs! Welcome back!” As the captains of the Ravens and Cleveland Browns met at the center of the field for the coin toss, veteran official Gene Steratore turned on his microphone greeted them with, “Good evening, men. It’s good to be back.” The stadium erupted in a roar.

It was a revealing glimpse into a basic truth of American sports: Without the guys who enforce the rules, everything else is pointless. As New York Giants linebacker Michael Boley reminded us, too many missed and blown calls put “the integrity of the game” at stake.

In sports we choose sides – our team against your team – but we want the referees to be skilled and impartial.  We expect the same from the judges in our courtrooms, too. How much faith could any of us have in a judge who’s taken cash from either litigant in a trial – or who owes his position on the bench to a partisan clique manipulating votes? Yet 38 states elect their high court judges and large sums of money – much of it from secret donors – are pouring into many of those judicial races.

An August study from the liberal Center for American Progress reports, “In state courts across our country, corporate special interests are donating money to the campaigns of judges who interpret the law in a manner that benefits their contributors rather than citizens seeking justice…

“Fueled by money from corporate interests and lobbyists, spending on judicial campaigns has exploded in the last two decades. In 1990 candidates for state supreme courts only raised around $3 million, but by the mid-1990s, campaigns were raking in more than five times that amount, fueled by extremely costly races in Alabama and Texas. The 2000 race saw high-court candidates raise more than $45 million.”

Ninety-five percent of America’s legal disputes are settled in state courts. The Center for American Progress Report, authored by Billy Corriher, studied 403 cases in six states, between 1992 and 2010 in which individuals sued corporations. The states – Alabama, Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Michigan – received the most judicial campaign cash during that same period. In those cases, “courts ruled in favor of corporations 71 percent of the time.”

Just as ominous, there’s a movement afoot to punish judges for decisions that offend political partisans. In Florida, the current system selects judges based on ability rather than partisan politics, but the state Republican Party there is trying to oust three state Supreme Court justices over a ruling on President Obama’s health care law that conservatives didn’t like.

One of the judges, R. Fred Lewis, told The New York Times, “This is a full-frontal attack – that had been in the weeds before – on a fair and impartial judicial system, which is the cornerstone and bedrock of our democracy.” Others believe Republican Gov. Rick Scott and the state legislature’s real motive is to take over and control the courts for political gain and on behalf of corporate interests.