Consequences Of Ads In Judicial Elections
Chief Justice Drayton Nabers is not participating in Exxon Mobil’s appeal of the largest verdict in Alabama history, the Alabama Supreme Court announced Monday.
Exxon Mobil is appealing a $3.6 billion verdict that the state government won in a lawsuit accusing the oil company of underpaying natural gas royalties to the state from wells drilled in state-owned waters along the Alabama coast.
Exxon Mobil’s appeal has become an issue in the race for chief justice, with Democratic Judge Sue Bell Cobb describing herself as the only candidate who has not taken oil money, and the Republican incumbent saying he has not received any donations from oil companies.
The Supreme Court sent a notice to attorneys on both sides of the Exxon Mobil case Monday saying Nabers “has not at any time participated and will not in the future participate” because he was involved in matters related to the litigation while serving as Gov. Bob Riley’s state finance director in 2003-2004.
I’ve already posted about this case, but what really caught my attention was the next part of the story:
In a related matter, attorneys for dog track operator Milton McGregor have asked Nabers to step aside from hearing an appeal involving the legality of electronic sweepstakes machines at the Birmingham dog track.
Their request, filed Thursday, cites Nabers’ campaign ads where he accuses his opponent of taking money from gambling interests and says he has “fought against the gambling bosses.”
A Jefferson County judge ruled that the sweepstakes games were legal, but Jefferson County District Attorney David Barber appealed that decision to the Supreme Court, which has not yet ruled.
Judges like to complain about being overworked. People like to complain about justice being too slow. Elections contribute to both problems. In addition to the costs associated with the election itself, statements about being (for/against) (position/group/person/party) invite litigation about recusals.
But the added election and litigation costs are not the only problem with campaign ads. Ads like Nabers’ are fundamentally incompatible with being a judge. His job is not to be “for” or “against” anyone. His job is to give each side a fair hearing and then to make a decision based on the law and the facts in front of him.
I know he isn’t the only offender; anyone who wants to be elected has to do this stuff. But campaign promises leave the judge two options when elected. Either they do their job, in which case the ad was just a sham to get elected, or they keep their word, in which case they undermine the law. Neither option is very attractive.