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U.S.: Politics, Judges and Justice

By Uche Onyebadi
WITH its huge population of over one billion citizens, India is the world’s largest democracy. But, the U.S. believes it is the beacon of democracy in our world. Last week, U.S. citizens went to polls for the mid-term election. It was a democratic exercise that left President Obama and his Democratic Party bruised and battered. Despite the president’s remarkably good work in reducing unemployment to a level unknown and unseen in the past decade, and getting the U.S. economy moving again in a positive direction, voters flashed their red cards at the Democrats. To complete the electoral humiliation, Republicans took control of the governorship mansion in Illinois, Obama’s home state.

As the political side of the elections – the executive and legislature – are still being debated across America and the world, very little is mentioned about the electoral battle that was also fought on the terrain of the U.S. judiciary. This is my focus in this column. And, my first salvo is to say that I believe that not so many people know or think that in some states in the United States, seven of them, judges are elected by the people.

Here is what the Illinois constitution (Section 12) says about electing judges: “Supreme, Appellate and Circuit Judges shall be nominated at primary elections or by petition. Judges shall be elected at general or judicial elections as the General Assembly shall provide by law.”  In other words, a candidate for the Illinois Supreme Court, the highest court in the state, will have to go through the process of primaries to be nominated, then the person will campaign and win the election in order to have a seat at the court.  Of course, running for office demands money; plenty of it.

Here again is an Illinois example. Justice Lloyd Karmeier is a justice of the Illinois Supreme Court. Last week, he won another 10-year term of office in a highly controversial and tension-filled election. This stems from how he won and became a Supreme Court justice in 2004, and some of the decisions he is associated with since that year. The 2004 race for the Supreme Court cost all parties concerned some $9.3 million.  In his 2014 re-election campaign, Justice Karmeier is reported to have spent around $4.8 million.

Soon after Justice Karmeier got to the Illinois Supreme Court, he cast his lot with the court’s majority decision to set aside an earlier decision of a lower court against Philip Morris, the cigarette manufacturing giant. The lower court had imposed a whopping $10.1 billion judgment against the company. In another case, the same Supreme Court vacated another judgment against an insurance company known as State Farm. The amount involved was $1.2 billion. Both cases are now back in court. Lawyers for the plaintiffs against State Farm are arguing that the company doled out money to Karmeier’s campaign so that upon getting to the bench, he would return the favour. A similar argument is being made in the Philip Morris case that is now at the federal court.

Justice Karmeier is a Republican and is known to be supported by big businesses. This open political party affiliation and big-money election support for judges going for election are some of the issues raised by opponents of judges being elected to office.

Political party affiliation

How does such judge maintain even a semblance of objectivity or neutrality in cases involving existing or potential supporters or political constituency? But, there is the counter argument that once in office, such elected judges have the ability to cut themselves off from all extraneous influences in their sense of justice and fairness. There may be some tissues of authenticity in this argument, but it will always have some believability problems. Once in office, politicians reward their benefactors; so will judges

To argue that justices are so incorruptible that they will not do the same is a hard nut to chew. In the case of Illinois, the fact that Justice Karmeier sided with big business that are associated with Republicans makes his case quite difficult to understand. The same Illinois constitution recommends that judges who find themselves in such a situation should recuse themselves from the cases. But Justice Karmeier is not a supporter of this provision, as he once argued that if all judges declined to sit in every case involving their campaign and political supporters, the judicial system “would come to a grinding halt.”

What plays out in the states also surfaces in a different form at the U.S. Supreme Court. There, justices are well-known for their political beliefs. Right now, the nine-person U.S. Supreme Court tilts in favour of justices with conservative credentials. The Supreme Court justices do not campaign to be “elected” to the highest judicial office in the country. They are nominated by the president and approved by the U.S. Senate. That process in itself stirs up another form of politics as Republicans and Democrats in the Senate strive to block potential U.S. justices of the Supreme Court who do not represent their political beliefs. And U.S. presidents strive to fill vacant Supreme Court spots with judges that belong to their political corner. Here is a practical example of what happens when justices of a particular political persuasion form the majority in the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 2010 the court, by a 5-4 decision, reversed the law that limited how much corporate organizations could contribute to political campaign funds. The court’s majority conservative justices saw that limitation as a restriction on freedom of speech and argued that “political speech must prevail against laws that would suppress it by design or inadvertence.” President Obama’s reacted to that decision by saying that “It is a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans…”

The result of the 2014 mid-term elections can partly be explained, using the president’s argument about big money determining electoral victory or defeat in U.S elections.


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