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July 28, 2010

Keep judicial elections on the high road

The ideal justice system is symbolized by Lady Justice, the blindfolded goddess who holds perfectly balanced scales. She represents the fairness and impartiality — untainted by partisanship, bias or the influence of money — that we want our own courts and judges to display.

Imagine if we instead had a court system contaminated by party politics and big money. How would you feel, in such a system, if you had a legal dispute with a well-connected political player who had given large amounts of money to the campaign of the judge deciding your case, as well as to the political party that endorsed the judge? Would you have faith in the system? Or would you question whether the scales were tilted against you from the start?

To avoid such distortions we have safeguards to keep judicial elections free of the party politics and influence of big money that has infected the other two branches of government. Unfortunately, those safeguards — and our hopes for clean elections for judgeships — took a hit with a recent federal appeals court decision that says Kentucky’s judicial candidates can announce their political party affiliation while personally soliciting campaign contributions.

This ruling — examined in the July 21 LEO Weekly piece “On the robes” — runs counter to the words, the intent, and the spirit of the Kentucky Constitution, which states in Section 117 that judges “shall be elected from their respective districts or circuits on a nonpartisan basis… ”

There are only seven states with partisan judicial elections, and their experience is not one other states should follow. Their races tend to cost more and are more likely to delve into the partisan muck.

In West Virginia, the lack of safeguards in judicial races was dramatically highlighted when the CEO of Massey Energy — the company that operated the coal mine where 29 miners were killed in an explosion in April — spent $3 million to influence the election of an appellate judge. The judge later cast a vote favorable to Massey that overturned a $50 million verdict in a fraud case against the company.

We do not want judges in Kentucky engaged in the type of system that has raised such ethical questions in West Virginia. Judges should be free from arm-twisting for campaign funds that can throw their impartiality into question. No one should have to question whether justice is for sale.

Although the recent ruling by the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals — if it isn’t successfully appealed — could move Kentucky away from clean judicial elections, enlightened advocates, including the League of Women Voters, have a plan to bolster the independence and high standards we expect from judicial candidates. The proposal is to keep judges free of the money chase that taints too much of government by allowing optional public financing of judicial campaigns for eligible candidates who stick to reasonable spending limits.

I’ve sponsored legislation in the Kentucky General Assembly to accomplish this in previous years. In response to the appeals court ruling that has many looking for a way to protect the integrity of our judicial elections, I will renew the push to pass this legislation — which was last proposed in 2006 — during the 2011 legislative session. Judicial races are now facing the possibility of political pressures that didn’t exist in Kentucky in 2006. The time has come to make sure Kentucky has a strong framework in place that protects the independence and integrity of our system of justice.

Public financing of judicial campaigns would give citizens assurance that justice isn’t for sale. It would ensure that judicial candidates aren’t thrown into the corrupting influence of a big money chase. And it would show that we still respect one of our nation’s founding principles, as expressed by Thomas Jefferson, that “the most sacred of the duties of a government (is) to do equal and impartial justice to all its citizens.”

Rep. Jim Wayne, of Louisville, represents Kentucky’s 35th House District in the Kentucky House of Representatives.

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