Bob Davis: Price tags on state’s judiciary
Nov 06, 2011 | 2103 views |  0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
More than $3.1 million was spent on three 2010 Alabama Supreme Court elections, according to a new report by a coalition of nonpartisan groups dedicated to studying money’s influence on the nation’s judiciary.

The sum ranks Alabama second in the nation in high-court candidate fundraising. With $5.4 million spent last year, Pennsylvania was No. 1, according to the report released last week by the Brennan Center for Justice, the National Institute on Money in State Politics and Justice at Stake.

Other findings in The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2009–10: How Special Interest “Super Spenders” Threatened Impartial Justice and Emboldened Unprecedented Legislative Attacks on America’s Courts were:

• Between candidates and special-interest groups, $38.4 million was spent on state supreme court races across the nation, just slightly less than the high-water mark of $42.7 million in 2005-2006.

• Almost one-third of the 2009-2010 spending came from independent groups not directly affiliated with candidates.

• The Business Council of Alabama was listed in the top 10 of “Super Spenders.” According to the report, the BCA contributed almost $1.3 million to Alabama races.

• Broken down by sector, “lawyers/lobbyists” make up the bulk of contributions, with $8.5 million given. “Business” was second with $6.2 million.

• In the 2009-2010 cycle, Alabama’s $3.1 million in contributions was well off the pace it previously established. Last decade, candidates raised $40.1 million, which, according to the report, was “easily the most costly state in the 2000-09 decade.”

• Television is the primary way Supreme Court candidates reach out to voters. Thousands of high-court commercials were aired in Alabama in 2010, according to the study. That means an estimated $1.9 million was spent to buy TV time.

This last point reminds me something Drayton Nabers Jr. said during the last weeks of his Alabama Supreme Court chief justice race in 2006. The Star’s editorial-board meeting with Nabers was fascinating. He had joined the court after Gov. Bob Riley appointed him to fill out the term of Roy Moore. Nabers, a one-time law clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, displayed a keen intellect and sharp wit. He came across as a devout, serious and conservative man not given to wild passions concerning the law and justice.

As we were wrapping up the meeting, Nabers mentioned with a sigh that explaining who he was and his judicial philosophy was impossible in the 30-second blasts that could either sink or save his campaign. His opponent at the time — Sue Bell Cobb, who would go on to win in 2006 — was airing ads that touted that she played piano at church.

My takeaway from Nabers’ comment and those from others in his shoes is that TV commercials are a necessary evil for judicial candidates. I suspect it’s easier to punch hot-buttons in 30 seconds than it is to illustrate that a candidate is intelligent, prudent and wise. To test my theory, I subjected myself to a selection of Alabama Supreme Court candidate ads from last year. If possible, the spots look even worse 12 months removed from the heat of a campaign. Here are the transcripts:

TOM PARKER AD: “Some people believe in assembly line justice, turning out one case after another without looking deeply at the Constitution, but not Justice Tom Parker.

“Tom Parker not only stands up for what we believe, Parker respects the Constitution and fights for it every single day.

“There’s lots of competing interests before the court, but there’s only one independent justice on our side, Tom Parker.

“Justice Tom Parker — fair and balanced, putting taxpayers first.”

— Parker for Justice. [http://youtu.be/hueoAry3-eg]

MAC PARSONS AD: “Remember Tom Parker?

“He’s the Supreme Court justice who doesn’t pay his taxes. [Montgomery County probate records cited in extremely fine print.]

“Now get this, Tom Parker got a man of the year award from a group that wants to rewrite the Constitution and end a woman’s right to vote. That’s right; they’d end a woman’s right to vote.

“A Supreme Court justice who doesn’t pay his taxes and might end a woman’s right to vote.

“What else do you need to know about Tom Parker?”

— Mac Parsons Campaign [http://youtu.be/0pOZA8045K0]

TRACY W. CARY AD: “Mike Bolin took money linked to BP oil, the same oil company that’s destroying our Gulf Coast. Why does it matter? Because after Bolin took money linked to Exxon, he allowed the oil giant to cheat Alabama taxpayers.

“Liberal Bolin is just as soft on criminals. Last month he reversed the murder conviction of a robber who killed a handicapped man. That’s liberal judge Bolin; he sides with oil companies and he’s soft on crime.”

— The Committee To Elect Tracy W. Cary [http://youtu.be/9HxaGFrViOE (starts at 1:15 mark)]

KELLI WISE AD: [Opens with video of young girl saying nighttime prayers] “Now I lay me down to sleep.”

[Candidate speaking directly to the camera] “The law is supposed to be fair, to protect us from injustice.”

[Girl] “I pray the Lord my soul to keep.”

[Candidate] “As a judge, it’s my job to make sure it does.”

[Girl] “Angels watch me through the night.”

[Candidate] “I’m Judge Kelli Wise. In over 20,000 cases, I’ve followed the law, my faith and our Alabama values to do what’s right.”

[Girl] “And wake me with the morning light.”

[Candidate] “So everyone in Alabama sleeps safe.”

[Announcer] “Judge Kelli Wise for Alabama Supreme Court.”

— Friends of Judge Kelli Wise [http://youtu.be/VGlcRvjW01I]

It seems candidates for Alabama’s highest court face a quandary. Successful campaigns depend on TV commercials that appeal to pure emotion, the very thing judges should be above when rendering justice. At the same time, the winners must abide by a code of ethics that rightly demands “high standards of conduct so that the integrity and independence of the judiciary may be preserved.”

Doing both is a lot to ask of state Supreme Court justices.

Bob Davis is editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or bdavis@annistonstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at: twitter.com/EditorBobDavis.
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