KRULL: Misguided judges reaping whirlwind

John Krull / Special to IBJ
November 30, 2013
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John KrullFormer Indiana Chief Justice Randall Shepard and other veterans of the highest state courts in the country issued a warning a few days ago about the dangers of large-scale campaign spending in judicial campaigns.

There is some irony in that—because it was the U.S. Supreme Court that tore down the campaign finance dam and let money flood elections at every level all over the land.

More on that in a moment.

We’ll let Shepard make his argument first.

Shepard’s comments came as part of his service as a board member of Justice at Stake, an enterprise dedicated to keeping courts fair and impartial. He spoke at a Washington, D.C., conference focused on the release of a new Justice at Stake report documenting that campaign spending almost doubled in the four years between 2007-2008 and 2011-2012.

Much of the money that flowed into state Supreme Court races came from special interest groups with national agendas.

Although the reality that they might lose their jobs for doing something that’s right but unpopular is an everyday reality for politicians, it’s apparently an unwelcome new development for judges. They’re just learning that the flood they unleashed can soak them, too.

That was the bulk of Shepard’s concern.

“Money finds whatever crevice it can, and flows into groups which are less transparent and less accountable,” Shepard said.

He argued that it would be good to limit the roles special interest groups play in judicial elections and give more power back to local parties and candidates. He said that, because parties and candidates are closer to the communities they represent, they likely would take a lot of the negativity and hostility out of campaigning.

All of that is true, but it’s going to be hard to make it happen—in large part because of obstacles to campaign finance reform constructed by U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

More than 30 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that money was, in effect, speech and therefore entitled to First Amendment protections.

The trouble was compounded a few years ago in the Citizens United case when the Supreme Court ruled corporations—and that includes special interest groups and political action committees—were, in effect, citizens and entitled to constitutional protections, too.

With the Citizens United ruling, the nation’s highest court tore down the last pieces of the thin and porous wall restraining campaign spending and allowed political money to flow, to use Shepard’s image, into every crevice in the land.

We now live in an America in which presidential campaigns spend upwards of a billion dollars to elect someone to a position that pays $400,000 per year.

But the Supreme Court rulings also have opened the tap on spending on all sorts of other elections, including judicial ones. Controlling that is going to be almost impossible as long as we view money as speech and corporations as citizens.

I don’t know where I stand on campaign finance law. While I see almost daily evidence of the pernicious effect the unfettered flow of money has on our public discourse, I’m also uncomfortable with telling people what they can say or how they can spend their money in support of principles they hold dear.

That said, it is way too late for anyone, least of all members of the judicial branch, to echo Claude Rains in “Casablanca” and say that they’re “shocked, positively shocked” that unchecked campaign spending can have damaging effects.

A flood is what a flood is. It washes over everything in sight.

Including judges.•


Krull directs Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, hosts the weekly news program “No Limits” on WFYI-FM 90.1, and is executive director of The Statehouse File. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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  1. So much for Eric Holder's conversation about race. If white people have got something to say, they get sued over it. Bottom line: white people have un-freer speech than others as a consequence of the misnamed "Civil rights laws."

  2. I agree, having seen three shows, that I was less than wowed. Disappointing!!

  3. Start drilling, start fracking, and start using our own energy. Other states have enriched their citizens and nearly elminated unemployment by using these resources that are on private land. If you are against the 'low prices' of discount stores, the best way to allow shoppers more choice is to empower them with better earnings. NOT through manipulated gov mandated min wage hikes, but better jobs and higher competitive pay. This would be direct result of using our own energy resources, yet Obama knows that Americans who arent dependent of gov welfare are much less likely to vote Dem, so he looks for ways to ensure America's decline and keep its citizens dependent of gov.

  4. Say It Loud, I'm Black and Ashamed: It's too bad that with certain "black" entertainment events, it seems violence and thuggery follows and the collateral damage that it leaves behinds continues to be a strain on the city in terms of people getting hurt, killed or becoming victims of crimes and/or stretching city resources. I remember shopping in the Meadows area years ago until violence and crime ended make most of the business pack you and leave as did with Lafayette Square and Washington Square. Over the past 10 to 12 years, I remember going to the Indiana Black Expo Soul Picnic in Washington Park. Violence, gang fights and homicides ended that. My great grandmother still bears the scares on her leg from when she was trampled by a group of thugs running from gun fire from a rival gang. With hundreds of police offices downtown still multiple shootings, people getting shot downtown during Black Expo. A number of people getting shots or murdered at black clubs around the city like Club Six on the west side, The Industry downtown, Jamal Tinsley's shot out in front of the Conrad, multiple fights and shootings at the skating rinks, shootings at Circle Center Mall and shooting and robberies and car jackings at Lafayette Mall. Shootings and gang violence and the State Fair. I can go on and on and on. Now Broad Ripple. (Shaking head side to side) Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Ashamed.

  5. Ballard Administration. Too funny. This is the least fiscally responsive administration I have ever seen. One thing this article failed to mention, is that the Hoosier State line delivers rail cars to the Amtrak Beech Grove maintenance facility for refurbishment. That's an economic development issue. And the jobs there are high-paying. That alone is worth the City's investment.