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Citizens United Threatens Right To A Fair Trial

Memo Pad Politics

Citizens United Threatens Right To A Fair Trial


By Jo-Ann Wallace, McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)

As a public defender, I fought for people who were charged with crimes not because they were guilty but because they were poor. Americans want to know that if they ever face a judge, their case will be decided based on the law. That is only possible with our constitutional right to a fair trial, including legal representation, and the presumption of innocence for all. But our judicial system is facing a crisis since the Supreme Court decided in Citizens United that what people standing before the bench need as much as a lawyer is a SuperPAC. You can imagine how ludicrous that seems to Americans fighting for their liberty, facing the awesome power of the state and unable to afford counsel.

In the 2012 election cycle, spending on judicial races was just over $56 million, and 2014 is on a record-shattering pace. As examples, a recent retention election in Tennessee saw a record-breaking $2.4 million spent, while in North Carolina, the campaign expenditures could top the $3 million mark. Moreover, spending on television advertisements also reached record levels in 2012, with the vast majority of dollars for such ads coming from independent, instead of campaign dollars. Justice is supposed to be blind, unconcerned about who stands before her. A recent study focusing on criminal cases, however, provides new evidence that such campaign spending puts fairness at risk.

According to the new research, the more TV ads aired during state supreme court judicial elections, the more likely justices are to vote against criminal defendants. The analysis also found that unlimited independent spending is associated with an increase in justices voting against defendants in criminal cases. In short, justices facing re-election or standing for retention are more likely to make decisions against defendants more often than they were before Citizens United. For most individuals convicted of a crime, state supreme courts are the last step of the process — a final chance to correct any errors that led to a miscarriage of justice. Thus, while such results would be cause for concern at any stage of judicial proceedings, they are even more alarming when they occur in the highest state courts.

All too often public defenders represent clients whose lives are invisible and whose voices are unheard in the corridors of power. They should not be “photo-ops” in some judges’ election strategy. Nor should judges wake up at night with fears of attack ads distorting their record and making them appear “soft on crime” — grim mug shots with an ominous voice praising or defaming them. These distortions of complex legal matters bring more heat than light to voters 30 seconds at a time, oblivious to the facts before the court presented over weeks of carefully parsed testimony. This is no way to determine a person’s guilt or innocence.

Low-income individuals and families in civil court are similarly at risk of the influences of campaign financing. For instance, studies tell us states that allow for the election of justices are most likely to see rulings that are friendlier to businesses as opposed to consumers. Indeed, 46 percent of judges believe that campaign spending has some influence over their decision making process. The American people have noticed this trend as well, with 76 percent of the public believing that campaign contributions have some impact on a judge’s decision and 90 percent believe interest groups use the courts to shape policy.

Justice requires public faith and confidence in the fairness and integrity of our judicial institutions. When we allow money to influence judges indebted to, or fearful of, campaign dollars, it is not just individuals charged with crimes who pay the price, but the American people as a whole as we lose faith in our courts and the rule of law altogether.

Merit-based selection and public financing are not perfect solutions, but they offer two healthier alternatives to the special interest money free for all. With public financing, for example, as North Carolina successfully pioneered, judicial candidates could focus on their work as officers of the court and not get drawn into the world of politics and fundraising, but ideology and money trumped even that model program when it was dismantled last year over people’s vocal objections. However your state chooses to select its judges, those who preserve the principles of an independent judiciary, free from political money, will be the states whose citizens are more likely to receive a fair trial, and see justice prevail.

Photo: Scott* via Flickr

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  1. DAK27 October 30, 2014

    Republicans and their supporters, as well as their masters (the wealthy) do NOT want justice, they want it ran their way. Their way where guilt is determined by the size of a persons bank account not by facts.

    1. rkief October 30, 2014

      Yes, despite our forefathers’ commitment to “our sacred honor,” our government – in the Republican view – is really all about money, isn’t it? Flags, Bibles and individual liberty are often just things to wrap hide, or clothe oneself in to disguise greedy intent.

      1. 788eddie October 31, 2014

        rkief, your comment should be guilded and lit up in neon lishts for everyone to see and reflect upon.

        Thank you!

      2. kenndeb October 31, 2014

        The dems and liberals are a bad or worse.

        1. highpckts October 31, 2014


        2. BillP November 3, 2014

          More brilliance from the right wing troll world. Pleas have your wife proof read your statements. Comments like this ” are a bad or worse” show your lack of intelligence.

          1. kenndeb November 3, 2014

            I always thought you would make a good spelling and grammar gestapo. You might consider having someone proofread your comments also.. “Pleas” doesn’t seem quite right to me, but you are the spelling gestapo, so it must be right? You are starting to show your desperation BillP.

          2. BillP November 4, 2014

            You seem to have a fixation with Nazi terminology. From your previous comments I think you would have made a good obedient storm trooper. You trolls have an infinity for making statement that seem to be pulled out of your butt. I’m not desperate at all, you are the one who has the negative attitude about most everything.

  2. Eleanore Whitaker October 31, 2014

    When you think about it in the context of past US History? Perhaps, the US would have been better served had American taxpayers not bailed out Big Money. Here’s why. Remember what happened in the Crash of 1857 and 1929? The greediest Robber Barons in the US over-speculated just like the big banks and Wall Street have done ever since. They have not learned their lessons. Bailouts are not learning curves for men so wealthy they don’t care who else they take down with them.

    Perhaps, it takes a huge financial crash before these lunatic greedheads get it. When they lose all, they learn. When we bail them out, they don’t.

    Some may opine that if “they” fail, so will we. How? They’ve already taken total control of US labor, Big Business and now…even the government. What really do we have to lose by letting them wallow in their own messes?

    Too few Americans today have anything to lose and everything to gain by forcing these greedy bulls to get a taste of hardship. They imposed it on us. Maybe, it’s time to pin the tail on these donkeys?

    1. 788eddie October 31, 2014

      Eleanore, I find that I am in agreement with you a lot of the time, but I think that this might be a case of “throwing out the baby with the bathwater.” I would still like the FDIC to cover my modest savings so that my family wouldn’t starve. A severe crash may pose a risk to that.

      I do agree that they got away with at worst bad press. That’s like being lashed with wet spaghetti. A number of CEOs and corporate heads still need to be held accountable for their actions. I’m hoping that they’re not still beyond reach of true and fair justice.

    2. rkief October 31, 2014

      Eleanor, it’s not that the Robber Barons hadn’t learned their lesson – that’s what they do – but that we haven’t learned (or never remember) our lessons….or worse yet, don’t heed them.

      1. Eleanore Whitaker November 1, 2014

        To accept that “we” and not the men of vast wealth are at fault is the reason they continue to indulge themselves in behaviors they know are dishonest, deceptive and all too monetarily aggressive.

        Humans have few essential needs we cannot live without. Compare that to the excesses of the rich. See the difference in basic views of life necessities yet? To a wealthy man, a private jet is crucial to his existence. To a middle class, blue collar worker, having a reliable vehicle to get back and forth to work is essential.

        Let’s not pretend that money is not the root of all evil. We are already getting a lifetime’s worth of experience since the year 2000 to prove this.

        When all of the smoke and mirrors are stripped away, the election of a single puppet president in 2000 opened the doors of hell for the great, unwashed masses. How? Behind the scenes meetings of men who believe in their own omnipotent power. Omnipotency in fallible humans is an illusion that takes vasts sums of money to turn illusion into a kind of false reality.

        There is not a single one of us today who couldn’t walk up to a Blankfein, Koch, Adelson, Trump or Benmosche and take them down with a single cold, unrelenting, all too conscience-scanning stare.

        What these men fear most is not us. They fear “loss” in every possible form. Until we force their losses, there will be no equality in this country.

        The analogy here is a trough with a last grain of swill and a herd of pigs. See how powerful that last grain of swill is?

        1. rkief November 1, 2014

          Unfortunately, you missed my point entirely, or I didn’t make it. Yes, the people you mention are vile, rapacious, perhaps even sociopathic, but It is we, the people, who bear the responsibility for the actions of our government, who have allowed them to prosper.

          Do we approve of their actions and of their influence upon us? Of course not, but it is we who approved, and elevated the public servants who legislated, or failed to regulate or enforce laws to keep no-holds-barred capitalism from consuming us all, and it is we who bought into their schemes and coveted their products.

          They should all – long ago – have been defrocked, jailed and shunned for life, but our elected politicians would not allow it. Where are the Roosevelts when we need them?

  3. Whatmeworry October 31, 2014

    Oh Baloney… Justices have nothing to fear if they enforce the law as written. However when they start using their idea of what the law should be then they should be afraid. If they want to change the laws run for office


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