The phones rang. The donations flowed.
Former Alabama Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb in 2006 won one of the most expensive judicial races in American history. Cobb, however, is no fan of the pricey system that got her to be the state’s top jurist.
The high-dollar races that have judicial candidates dialing for dollars are tawdry, she said, and the donations that judicial candidates must solicit from law firms and businesses that appear in their courtroom are something akin to “legalized extortion.”
“To fully achieve the goal of having fair courts, there must be reform in how judges are selected,” Cobb said in an interview with The Associated Press
Cobb, who stepped down as chief justice in 2011, has become a national advocate for changing how judges are selected. At one time in history, judges were appointed by kings, Cobb said, and electing judges was seen as a way of letting people decide who would hear cases.
“The money now has become the king,” Cobb said.
In her 2006 race for chief justice, Cobb initially set a goal of raising $2 million. She said it quickly became clear that more would be needed. She raised and spent $2.6 million. Her opponent, Republican Chief Justice Drayton Nabers raised and spent $5.5 million.
That spending ranked as the second most expensive judicial race in American history, according to a report by Justice at Stake, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
“Everything we did was legal and ethical, but that didn’t mean it was right,” Cobb said of her race.
Judicial candidates are not allowed to discuss cases when they call seeking donations. Still, Cobb said there is an inevitable unspoken pressure when a judge, or potential judge is seeking a donation from a lawyer, head of a law firm or business owner who will appear in their courtroom.
“How do they refuse?” Cobb said.
Cobb became a judge at age 25 and resigned as chief justice in 2011 at age 55. During her 30 years on the bench, Cobb said she never witnessed a direct quid pro quo where a judge traded a ruling for a donation. But patterns in rulings become suspect, she said.
“When a judge almost always rules the way his backers want him to rule, you would have to question, did that judge arrive at that result in an intellectually honest way or did they not want to displease the people who sent them?’ Cobb said.
For years, Cobb has been an advocate on changing how judges are elected. In her resignation speech, she urged the non-partisan elections. Cobb this spring penned a first-person piece for the online news site Politico provocatively titled “I Was Alabama’s Top Judge. I’m Ashamed By What I Had To Do To Get There. How money is ruining America’s courts.”
“What former Justice Cobb is saying publicly, is what a lot of judges feel privately but are afraid to say,” said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of the Justice at Stake Campaign.
“Judges are pressured now routinely to raise money from parties who then appear before them in court and are pressured to become politicians in black robes who are more accountable to political pressure than they are the law and the constitution,” Brandenburg said.
“Every state that elects judges needs to take a hard look at how best to keep insulation around their judges so money is not pressuring them to be accountable to politics instead of the law.”
Cobb said the optimum choice would be to have merit-based selection system of judges with giving voters the decision on retention with information made available to voters on the judge’s record.
A second choice, she said, would be to make the races nonpartisan, an option that she says cut down on the price tag of races. Ultimately, it is not a matter of party, said Cobb, a Democrat.
“Everybody should want – no matter where they come from in life – they should want our courts to be fair, not lean one way or the other,” Cobb said.
Republished with permission of the Associated Press.