Some amount of attention has been paid in recent years to the enormous amount of special interest money that has flooded into our state Supreme Court races. This is part of a nationwide pattern in which the US Chamber of Commerce alone has spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the past decade targeting judicial races, successfully building pro-business, conservative majorities on benches in state after state.
But here in Washington we elect all our judges, from the Supremes all the way down to our local municipal court… low profile races that, given the restrictions on the candidates (they are actually barred from talking about issues), often turn on name recognition more than any other factor. And to gain name ID, you gotta spend money, mostly in the form of expensive direct mail campaigns.
Take for example the race for King County Superior Court Position 22, a three way contest between Julia Garratt, Holly Hill and Rebeccah Graham. This is one of those rare, easy judicial races for me because Graham is not only an extremely qualified attorney who has presided over thousands of cases as a Superior Court pro tem judge… she is also a close personal friend. That said, I hadn’t intended to write about the race because I don’t feel particularly qualified to judge judges, and I don’t think my personal endorsements hold much sway.
But this race illustrates a deeper problem with the way we elect judges, a problem which deserves a broader dialogue.
Take a look at the “Cash Raised” column in the PDC reports, and it looks like a pretty damn competitive race, with Garratt, Hill and Graham raising $14,370, $14,595 and $11,240 respectively. That’s the amount of money folks like you and I have given to the candidates, but in this race it tells much less than half the story, for while cash contributions represent the sum total of what Graham has raised thus far, Garratt has loaned her campaign an additional $12,600, while Hill has invested a staggering $70,000 in personal funds into her own race.
$70,000! That’s more than twice the total contributions raised by nearly every other candidate running for King County Superior Court, and from what I know about local judicial races, it’s gotta make Hill the hands down favorite. It just blows her opponents out of the water, and you can be sure that this was exactly her intent.
I don’t bring this up as a personal knock against Hill; while she doesn’t come anywhere near the valuable bench experience Graham has accumulated over her six years as a pro tem judge, I’m told Hill is both a good attorney and a good person. But are all our citizens really best served by a judiciary where personal wealth—and the willingness to use it—becomes the most important qualification?
Of course the real solution is to stop electing judges in the first place. I’m about as engaged a voter as you’ll find, and I generally have no idea who to vote for in judicial races. (I usually ask Graham and my other lawyer friends for advice.) But no matter how wise, this state is never going to vote for less Democracy, so the system we have is pretty much the system we’re stuck with.
But what we can do is move toward a system of public financing that would lift the fundraising burden from our judicial candidates (who aren’t even allowed to directly solicit funds in the first place), and remove the distorting role of money from races for offices that I think we all agree should remain scrupulously apolitical.
Unless, of course, you’re a free market ideologue who believes that society is best served when everything—even justice—goes to the highest bidder.