Written by Victor Goode
Sometimes cases that never mention race at all end up having a disproportionate impact on people of color. There are countless examples of this proposition, but one that occurred recently was a case ruled on by the US Supreme Court. The case from West Virginia involved an election to the State Supreme Court. (Currently 39 states allow voters to choose their high court judges) A wealthy coal company owner bank rolled the candidate for the Chief Justice position with over three million dollars in contributions. Actually because of election laws most of the money didn’t go directly to the candidate but was spent by a political action committee taking out television ads attacking his opponent.
The attack ads worked and the judge was elected. But once on the bench he was confronted with hearing an appeal in a case where his financial backer had a 50 million dollar judgment against him from a lower court. The Judge declined to remove himself from hearing the case, protesting that despite his relationship three million dollar relationship to one of the litigants that he would have not trouble being “fair and impartial.” His financial backer won the case by a single vote and you can guess who delivered that decisive vote.
To be fair, another judge might have decided the case the same way, but the issue was clear—was the appearance of a conflict of interest so great that in order to preserve a truly “fair” hearing the judge should have refrained from deciding the case? Financial contributions, according to the Supreme Court, are expressions of political speech, and so are protected by the First Amendment. So whose rights should prevail? The corporate executive that gave three million dollars to have his candidate elected, or the parties who believed that that amount of money couldn’t help but taint the judicial process?
The Supreme Court held that the due process clause could place limits on the use of money to influence judicial elections. They didn’t say that the money couldn’t be spent, only that if the judge receiving that contribution had a pending matter in any way related to the source of those contributions that they should refrain from hearing that case. While this case appears to have nothing to do with race or racial disparities, it has everything to do with class, power, moneyed interests and the increasing corruption of our democratic process. So score one for the people, all the people, but especially people of color who are still struggling to make democracy work and will never be able to make if the price tag is three million dollar.