Presence of Outside Donors Felt in Judicial Elections

The North Carolina judicial system should establish an independent commission to appoint its judges. NC judges are currently chosen by voters in partisan elections, but these races and similar contests elsewhere can feature hefty contributions to campaigning justices in exchange for favorable votes on behalf of the donors involved. While elections are perceived by many to “give the power to the people”, the reality is that high-paying interest groups have a much greater say over which judges are selected and which verdicts are found.


A 2013 American Constitution Society report found the general public is becoming more suspicious of campaign contributions potentially skewing judicial elections and court verdicts; 90% of voters and 80% of judges believe interest groups are actively trying to influence judicial decisions by way of campaign funds. The report goes on to confirm this suspicion, finding, “A significant relationship exists between business group contributions to state supreme court justices and the voting of those justices in cases involving business matters”.

After controlling for non-business contributions, judges’ party affiliations, and other variables, Shepherd still found that justices were more likely to cast a pro-business vote when they received a larger percentage of their donations from pro-business interest groups. The report specifically emphasizes the following: “A justice who receives half of his or her contributions from business groups would be expected to vote in favor of business interests almost two-thirds of the time”. The conclusion that interest groups can levy judicial decisions through a quid pro quo arrangement with elected justices calls into question the fairness of the court system.


The court case Caperton v. A. T. Massey Coal Co. demonstrates a worst-case scenario that can result from an election-based judiciary. The case dates back to 1998, when Harman Mining Company president Hugh Caperton sued A.T. Massey Coal Company on the grounds that Massey committed fraud by exiting a coal supply contract with Harman Mining. After a West Virginia jury found Massey guilty, Massey chairman Don Blankenship, planning to appeal the verdict, donated millions to Brent Benjamin’s campaign for a seat on the Supreme Court of Appeals bench. Benjamin defeated incumbent Justice Warren McGraw and later cast the deciding vote in a 3-2 verdict to overturn the settlement. The Brennan Center writes, “Benjamin...refused to recuse himself from the appeal of the $50 million jury verdict, even though the CEO of the lead defendant spent $3 million supporting his campaign for a seat on the court”.

Caperton then took the case to the United States Supreme Court, arguing that Benjamin’s relationship with Blankenship necessitated his recusal. The bench ruled in his favor, citing an extreme conflict of interest, and sent the case back to the West Virginia Supreme Court. While the state supreme court found the same verdict the second time, the case still sheds light on the ability of campaign donors to manipulate judicial decisions.


If corruption within other states is not reason enough, North Carolina legislators need look no further than their own courts for evidence of donor-funded judicial misconduct. Hazelton, Montgomery, and Nyhan found that North Carolina Supreme Court justices were more likely to cast a pro-business vote when a party involved in a case had donated to a campaign of theirs. Because this study assesses the impact of the state’s since-eliminated “clean elections” program, it includes cases decided between 1997 and 2002, the year the reforms were introduced.

In that five-year span, not a single justice had voted in favor of the plaintiff when the defendant was a donor to a campaign of theirs. Justices voted in favor of the plaintiff with 48% likelihood when neither party’s attorneys were donors, and 80% likely to favor the plaintiff when their attorney was a donor. While the “clean elections” program did limit judges voting on behalf of their donors, it was scrapped in 2013 and has not yet been reestablished.


Interestingly enough, the aforementioned ACS report also found that the relationship between business contributions and judges’ voting was actually stronger among judges affiliated with the Democratic Party than with their Republican counterparts. Given the GOP’s usual pro-business outlook, it’s fair to assume that Republican-affiliated judges might be more likely to be swayed by financial donors in business-related court decisions than their Democratic counterparts. The fact that the opposite is true only proves the seriousness of the situation; corruption in the judiciary is apparently as nonpartisan as it is prevalent throughout our courts.

The above cases, along with plenty others, demonstrate concerning relationships between judges and their campaign donors throughout state-level judicial elections. Although an independent commission might still be susceptible to financial influence, it would be a step in the right direction towards bringing due process back to the North Carolina judiciary.

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Brennan Center for Justice. 2009. “Caperton v. Massey.” 
work/caperton-v-massey (July 20, 2017).Caperton v. A. T. Massey Coal Co. 2009. 556 U.S. 868.Hazelton, Montgomery, and Nyhan. 2015.

“Does Public Financing Affect Judicial Behavior? Evidence from the North Carolina Supreme Court.” American Politics Research 44 (4): 587-617. (July 20, 2017). 

Shepherd, Joanna. 2013. “Justice at Risk: An Empirical Analysis of Campaign Contributions and Judicial Decisions.” American Constitution Society for Law and Policy. (July 20, 2017). 

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