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The right to a fair day in court is under threat. Judicial elections are awash in money, while lawmakers have sought to rein in judges whose rulings they don’t like. We advocate for protecting judicial independence, guarding against special interest influence on the courts, and achieving a diverse bench.

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Why It Matters

State courts hear 95 percent of all cases. But the prom­ise of even­han­ded justice in these courts is increas­ingly under threat. 

Special interest groups routinely pour large sums into supreme court races – most of it dark money where donors are undis­closed. Most state judges are chosen in a way that lacks safe­guards to protect their inde­pend­ence from special interests or polit­ical pres­sure, threat­en­ing their abil­ity to apply the law fairly and without fear of retali­ation.

And the rules govern­ing when judges should step aside from hear­ing cases haven’t kept up with the real­it­ies of high-cost judi­cial elec­tions. This means judges often hear cases involving big contrib­ut­ors — an obvi­ous conflict of interest. It’s little wonder that nine in ten Amer­ic­ans — and nearly half of state judges — think campaign cash affects judi­cial decisions. 

At the same time, in states across the coun­try, partisan lawmakers have stepped up efforts to rein in judges whose rulings they don’t like, manip­u­late the compos­i­tion of the courts, or other­wise politi­cize the bench. 

And our courts are still a long way from reflect­ing the diversity of the communit­ies they serve, threat­en­ing their legit­im­acy in the eyes of the public and exclud­ing vital perspect­ives from judges’ delib­er­a­tions.

Amer­ic­ans need to have confid­ence that the courts will deliver equal justice, and that rulings will be inde­pend­ent and fair-minded. That’s why the Bren­nan Center for Justice advoc­ates for reform­ing how judges are selec­ted, revamp­ing recusal rules, and adopt­ing judi­cial public finan­cing, to protect against special interest influ­ence and polit­ical pres­sure. We also sound the alarm when lawmakers try to weapon­ize the courts and fight efforts to under­mine their inde­pend­ence. We track and analyze judi­cial elec­tions. And we study the demo­graph­ics of state and federal judi­ciar­ies and promote meas­ures to help build a more diverse bench.  

Want to find out more? Sign up for the Fair Courts E-Lert, a timely roundup of devel­op­ments concern­ing judges and the judi­ciary, delivered to your inbox twice a month.

Solutions

End Supreme Court Elec­tions & Use an Account­able Appoint­ment System

States should do away with supreme court elec­tions. Instead, justices should be appoin­ted through a publicly account­able process conduc­ted by an inde­pend­ent nomin­at­ing commis­sion. The process should allow for public over­sight and curb oppor­tun­it­ies for polit­ical self-deal­ing in the selec­tion process.

Adopt A One and Done Lengthy Single Term for Justices

All state supreme court justices should serve a single, lengthy “one and done” term, so that they can decide cases without worry­ing that follow­ing the law could cost them their job.

Strengthen Recusal Rules for Judges

Judges should be required to step aside from cases when they are the bene­fi­ciar­ies of substan­tial spend­ing in support of their elec­tion. And states should adopt proced­ural safe­guards so that recusal determ­in­a­tions are made by an inde­pend­ent judge.

Adopt Judi­cial Public Finan­cing

States should provide for public finan­cing for judi­cial elec­tions, in order to deepen the pool of poten­tial judi­cial candid­ates and mitig­ate the conflicts posed by special interest spend­ing.

Read more in our Choos­ing State Judges report.

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