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Role of Money in Campaigns Threatens to Besmirch Court

November 05, 1986|CHRISTOPHER C. OHMAN | Christopher C. Ohman, a San Francisco banker, is the treasurer of the Committee to Retain Justice Grodin

With the close of the campaign opposing three members of the California Supreme Court, we find ourselves in a new and disturbing era of judicial politics. Not only has the court been tarnished by the acerbic rhetoric of a bitter campaign, but a more insidious element threatens to further damage the reputation of our highest court in future elections.

The money raised by the campaigns opposing and supporting the three justices rivaled the fund-raising totals of other major races in the state. If this practice is allowed to continue, it inevitably will lead to damaging questions about possible links between campaign contributions and judicial outcomes. The California Supreme Court should not be subjected to the corrosive influences of politics and money.

The attacks against Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and Associate Justices Cruz Reynoso and Joseph Grodin trivialized complex issues such as how our courts decide when criminals may be put to death, reducing them to box scores of votes by each justice and highly emotional 30-second television spots. Bird herself began slinging the mud as early as a year ago, when she called her opponents "little Eddie Meeses," and more recently by saying that the governor and others were engaged in a "judicial lynching."

What's worse is that politics already may have affected court decisions. Retired Justice Otto Kaus has admitted that politics may have influenced his 1982 vote affirming the constitutionality of the Victims Bill of Rights. He was up for confirmation at the time.

What was even more distressing about the most recent judicial election was the magnitude of fund raising. For the first time in a Supreme Court election, the battles were fought with television advertising campaigns that rivaled the most expensive races in the state. The three major opposition campaign committees and the justices' campaigns raised a combined total of $9.1 million from January, 1985, through Oct. 18, 1986.

By comparison, George Deukmejian and Tom Bradley raised $18.5 million for their gubernatorial campaigns during the same period. The two leading candidates for lieutenant governor raised $4.8 million. Few other races in the state raised more than $2 million for the two leading candidates.

Funding multimillion-dollar campaigns inevitably leads to tapping the riches of special interests. And special interests that are strongly affected by Supreme Court decisions gave generously to both sides of the most recent judicial contest. For example, the California Trial Lawyers Assn. gave more than $200,000. On the other hand, one of the leading campaigns opposing the justices recently received a $100,000 loan from a fund-raising committee supported by a wide range of real estate, medical, oil and other interests, and counted among its contributors Blue Cross and Blue Shield Assn., Chevron Oil and Atlantic Richfield Co.

I raise this point not to question the integrity of the current members of the Supreme Court. Rather, I am troubled by the prospect that the justices' decisions could gradually be affected by the influence of special interests in much the same way that the ubiquitous pressure of fund raising influences the bills that are passed by the California Legislature. Or, even if the justices somehow remain free of this pressure, opponents would not waste the opportunity to smear individual justices with inferences or explicit charges of special-interest influence through campaign contributions. In the process the public's perception of the court will suffer further.

Supreme Court justices should not have to concern themselves with money and politics. We might eliminate these corrosive influences by appointing justices to a single eight-year term.

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