BATON ROUGE – While trial lawyers and other such groups have every right to make campaign contributions, they're not immune to the consequences of those donations, an Louisiana State University law professor said during a recent interview.
"Both plaintiff-lawyer groups and business groups pour money into state Supreme Court races around the country," LSU Law Center Professor Emeritus John S. Baker Jr. said during a Louisiana Record email interview. "Under the First Amendment, both groups and others have the right to do so. Electing judges in this way, however, produces potential conflicts of interest because the donors often end up as litigants before judges and justices to whom they have contributed."
Baker added that judges and justices should not hear their donor's cases.
Those observations seem especially pertinent to a Louisiana Supreme Court race in which two Republican judges are seeking the seat of a retiring Democrat justice, one of whom has recently come under fire for donations received from trial lawyers. State District Judge Marilyn Castle of Lafayette and Appellate Court Judge Jimmy Genovese of Opelousas are running against each other for the seat of retiring Associate Justice Jeannette Theriot Knoll and a 10-year term in the Louisiana Supreme Court.
Campaign contributions have been sticking points in the race between Genovese and Castle during the past year. During the first part of October, Genovese’s cash on hand was $260,998.76 while Castle’s cash on hand was $233,991.27, according to a Louisiana Ethics Administration Program’s campaign finance report.
Genovese said during a debate in September that he'd not accepted money from political action committees and sharply criticized Castle for doing so.
However, the conservative website The Hayride offered different figures, particularly for Genovese.
"Jimmy Genovese is raking in the trial lawyer money," the website said. "He has raised $795,309.32 of which $716,050.96 is from lawyers, their spouses and their affiliated businesses. That means 90 percent of Genovese’s money comes from the trial lawyers."
It isn't just the Louisiana's Supreme Court race that has sparked large amounts of campaign spending this general election. The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School recently reported that a record $14 million in independent money has paid for television advertisements for state Supreme Court seats across the country. Though the final tally won't be known until after the election Tuesday, it is certain to blow away the previous record of $13.5 million, set during the 2011-2012 election cycle.
Traditionally, individual lawyers have organized campaign committees for persons running to be elected or re-elected as judges. However, legal observers point out that in the last decade or so, business groups have become more active donors, hoping to counter what they see as too much influence from plaintiff attorneys. All those groups together are contributing to the record-breaking amounts of independent money being funneled into state Supreme Court races in the U.S., including the one in Louisiana.
“State supreme court elections have become increasingly high-cost and politicized,” Alicia Bannon, senior counsel at the Brennan Center, was quoted in a recent PBS Newshour story. “Special interests have been putting a lot of money into those races, trying to shape who sits on the courts and ultimately the decisions the courts are making.”
While the large amounts are raising brows, Baker said donors have the right to make those contributions, though he added judges shouldn't hear cases that involve their donors.
"I believe that judges and justices should be barred from hearing a case in which any of the lawyers or parties donated more than a certain, relatively low, amount of money," Baker said.