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Thursday, 19 July 2007 02:01

Jesse M. Reiter: The Purchasing of Our State Supreme Courts: How Goliath is Beating David in Courtrooms Across America

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by Jesse M. Reiter

Over the last several election cycles, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its powerful corporate backers have been silently purchasing state Supreme Court seats across the country. As a result, many state supreme courts, which were once fair and neutral, now favor big business interests. This in turn has left average citizens without a voice in our court system and is making our system less democratic.

The Chamber's state Supreme Court strategy is simple: "buying a new court... [is] far cheaper than changing the direction of fifty legislatures." Since the Chamber understands that Americans would never willingly allow their rights to be openly eliminated, it is quietly pouring huge sums of money into formerly sedate and inexpensive judicial elections, effectively buying the state court systems where citizens' rights are enforced.

The Chamber's goal is equally simple: to return America to the "gilded" age when workers and citizens had few rights and corporations and insurance companies were immune from lawsuit. During that early era of American history, companies had no incentive to make working conditions or products safe since there was no risk of legal action. The Chamber's strategy ignores the health and safety of American citizens and instead focuses exclusively on corporate profits.

Michigan is a good example of the Chamber's strategy. Up until about 10 years ago, the typical Supreme Court election campaign in Michigan was a quiet and little-noticed affair that commonly cost less than 10% of a Governor's race, often even less. The Chamber of Commerce and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce saw an opportunity in Michigan to create what they now call a "model court" here in Michigan. So they opened their war chest and took aim at our courts.

By 2000, the nasty and contentious campaign for the Michigan Supreme Court cost over $16 million, making it the most expensive state Supreme Court race in U.S. history. Since that time, the Michigan Supreme Court has become the most pro-business, anti-consumer court in the nation ruling for insurance companies and against average citizens about 80%-90% of the time.

While Michigan may have been an early casualty, it is not alone. In Alabama in 2000, the Chamber raised $8 million to target judges and buy Supreme Court elections. The targeting was so successful that the Chamber swept five of the nine seats of the Alabama Supreme Court and gained yet another pro-business majority.

With these and other successes in 2000, business groups and the Chamber doubled contributions in 2002. While candidates less beholden to big business were starting to figure out what had hit them, there was little they could do in the face of the world's most powerful business special interest. As one political strategist observed, non-Chamber judicial candidates were "blown away in spending.... That is why the courts have been overtaken by corporate-interest groups. The lesson is you have to have money to win these races."

The Chamber was again extremely successful with Supreme Court races in 2002 winning all nine seats it had targeted. Between 2000 and 2004, the Chamber spent more than $120 million targeting formerly sleepy state Supreme Court races, most of it through the Institute for Legal Reform, a tax-free affiliate. All that spending paid off handsomely. In the 2004 elections, for example, the Chamber's political muscle won every single one of these lopsided contests.

Money was not the only weapon being used to crush the Chamber's judicial opponents. The business lobby entered many of these battles with brass knuckles using mudslinging and misleading advertising. In Michigan, the Chamber's ads referred to one well-respected judge as a "pedophile." In Mississippi, the Chamber knocked off Chief Justice Chuck McRae -- a tireless advocate for victims' rights -- by implying McRae was "soft on child-molesters." In West Virginia, the Chamber defeated Chief Justice William McGraw by funding ads that referred to McGraw as a pedophile, a tactic they had previously used with success in Michigan. They also accused him of allowing a child rapist to work in a school.

Most recently in 2007, the Chamber invaded Wisconsin and spent millions to ensure that a pro-business justice would be elected.

In state after state -- Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Mississippi, Alabama, West Virginia, Wisconsin -- the results of these efforts to "buy justice" at any cost have now become obvious. Laws designed to protect working families, consumers, the environment, and access to justice are being overturned or twisted in favor of special privilege and immunity from justice. Injured citizens and workers now routinely lose to insurance companies and meritorious cases are thrown out all the time.

At the same time, insurance company profits are skyrocketing while doctors and patients alike are being price-gouged by ever-rising insurance premiums. Insurance companies have canceled policies for hurricane victims and denied claims of injured citizens because they know they will get favorable treatment by pro-business courts. All this is being done to protect new special privileges and immunities granted to insurance companies by these new "tort reform" courts.

Families injured in auto accidents or home fires are forced to sue their insurance companies -- or one another -- in desperate attempts to work their way through the newly "reformed" legal systems designed to protect insurance companies and big business.

In Michigan, our "Supreme Insurance Court" has declared that visible dangers are "obvious" to the blind; Road Commissions created to ensure safe roads have "no duty" to maintain safe roads; the drug industry has absolute immunity from recourse to the thousands of people killed by dangerous drugs (the only state in the country that has this immunity); those injured, disabled, and disfigured by drunk drivers in auto accidents cannot collect from the insurance policies they purchased because they were not injured horribly enough; patients who have the wrong limb removed by a quack doctor are barred from justice through a maze of loopholes based on an obscure statute from the 1800s... and the list goes on.

Our system of justice was created so that all of us could be equal before the law. Our system of Democracy cannot function when the most powerful among us can purchase special privileges and immunity at the expense of the rest.

Unless this new tactic of "buying justice" funded by corporate special interests with more money and clout than most nations can be reversed, Americans can look forward to more judicial pedophile campaign ads, more hundreds of millions spent to buy judicial elections, and more corrupted and twisted laws designed not to protect people, but to protect the profits of those who wrote the checks for the election ads. Americans need to join in the fight to keep our Supreme Courts fair and impartial and to make sure corporations and insurance companies are held accountable for their actions. Otherwise, we will return to the gilded era of the early 20th century where we had no rights of recourse.


Jesse M. Reiter, Attorney at Law with Gregory & Reiter, PC, in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, is a past President of the MTLA.