Chimpanzees and the Courts
September 7, 2012
One of the favorite tropes of the “merit” selection gang is that contributors to judicial campaigns are trying to “buy the courts.” Of course, it takes a great deal of chutzpah for organizations funded by a billionaire Wall Street speculator to accuse anyone of trying to buy anything … but we’ll leave that aside.
Still, when I read a Washington Post report this morning about an “all-hands-on-deck” meeting at the Democratic convention in Charlotte where senior White House advisors and Cabinet officials “met privately with millionaires and billionaires” to “cajole” them into fueling the Obama re-election effort, I wondered if there would be any outrage from the billionaire-backed gavel grabbers.
After all, shouldn’t these folks be equally troubled by the prospect of “senior White House advisor David Plouffe listen[ing] intently … as a billionaire donor sought his help for a proposed rule protecting captive chimpanzees” or another mega-rich donor “press[ing] him about White House action to protect same-sex couples”? Isn’t trying to “buy” the White House’s favor on these issues just as big a threat to democracy as a business owner who contributes to a state Supreme Court justice who winds up making pro-business rulings?
The usual answer from the “merit” selection crowd is that “judges are different.” It’s OK, they argue, for ordinary politicians in Congress, state legislatures, governors’ mansions and even the White House to sell out to would-be chimpanzee protectors – in fact, that’s what they are elected to do. But judges who accept contributions are instantly tainted and cannot render fair rulings if they have taken campaign cash.
This attitude reflects a warped view of what public service means in our American democracy. Every public servant – from the lowliest county courtroom to the White House itself – has a constitutional duty to protect the common good or what we once called “the public interest.” Legislators represent all the people, not just those who voted for them or contributed to their campaigns.
Governors and presidents must enforce the laws equally for all the people, not just chimpanzee admirers being hit up for dough. Likewise, judges interpret the law equally for all the people, regardless of whether they were placed on the bench through judicial elections or “merit” selection.
Accepting campaign contributions per se doesn’t make a public official less dedicated to the common good. The truth is, campaign donors typically contribute to legislative, executive and judicial candidates they feel are more likely to share their view of government. The quid pro quo that “merit” selection proponents assume comes with every contribution is merely a fiction designed to undermine judicial elections, which, from their standpoint, too often result in the seating of judges who don’t share their ideological preferences. Which is why you won’t hear any noise from the Soros crowd about senior White House officials huddled with billionaire donors discussing federal rules about chimpanzees.