Events

Poll: West Virginia Voters Support Public Financing for Court Elections

CHARLESTON, W.VA., March 8, 2010-West Virginia voters support public financing of elections for state Supreme Court justices, expressing deep concern that campaign funders currently can buy unfair influence in the courtroom.

In a poll conducted Feb. 21-24, 52 percent of voters surveyed supported public financing of high court elections. The margin of support rose after a brief mention of the money-soaked Supreme Court election of 2004, with 61 percent favoring public financing and only 30 percent opposing. The poll also showed huge favorable ratings for Governor Joe Manchin, who has endorsed public financing legislation.
Details of the poll were unveiled today by the Justice at Stake Campaign and the Committee for Economic Development, two national nonpartisan reform organizations that commissioned the survey, in a news conference held jointly at the state Capitol with state Sen. Jeffrey Kessler.

"West Virginia's voters understand that judges should be able to focus on the law, not on dialing for dollars," said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake. "Public financing is a major step in protecting fair, impartial courts, and lawmakers will earn broad, bipartisan public support for taking this step."

Since 2004, when coal executive Don Blankenship spent $3 million to elect Brent D. Benjamin to the state Supreme Court, West Virginia has been at the center of public debate on how to protect courts from special-interest influence. On March 3, the House of Delegates approved a pilot public financing program, so that judges would not have to seek financial backing from those who appear before them in court. The Senate is expected to vote on similar legislation.

The poll showed strong lingering effects in the public mind from that election, and from a subsequent U.S. Supreme Court case, Caperton v. Massey, in which Chief Justice Benjamin was forced off of a lawsuit involving Blankenship.

Voters initially supported public financing 52 percent to 39 percent. But support rose sharply, to 61 percent in favor and only 30 percent opposed, when the 2004 Supreme Court election was mentioned briefly.
Similarly, 68 percent said it was a "serious problem" that elected judges received contributions from those who appear before them in court. After being reminded of Blankenship's expenditures in 2004, that number spiked to 89 percent.

Other major poll findings:

  • 78 percent said judges should not hear any cases "involving any organization, business or individual who spent significant amounts of money to help elect them."
  • The same number, 78 percent, felt campaign expenditures have a "great deal of" or "some" influence on courtroom decisions by elected judges.
  • 77 percent believe Gov. Manchin, who established a commission to propose court-related reforms and who backs the public-financing legislation, is doing a good job, while only 21 percent disagree. He has favorable ratings of at least 70 percent from Republicans and Independents.

Voters also overwhelmingly support other reforms that would reduce the impact of special-interest money in court elections:

  • 77 percent support tougher recusal rules for judges, saying judges should be required to step down from cases involving anyone who spent $50,000 or more toward their election. A similar number, 78 percent, said judges should be forced to remove themselves from cases involving campaign contributors.
  • 75 percent support tougher disclosure rules, saying that special-interest groups which spend money on "independent" campaigns should be required to disclose who is paying for such campaigns.

Michael Petro, vice president of the Committee for Economic Development, said previous polls show that business executives strongly support proposals that eliminate any perception of courtroom bias.

"The business world depends on fair, stable courts that can settle disputes impartially," Petro said. "Everyone, citizens and businesses alike, deserves a fair day in court. Public financing takes judges out of the fund-raising business, and helps make this ideal a reality. And when business can spend more money on products than on lawyers and electing judges, everybody wins."

Six hundred voters were polled by Anzalone Liszt Research, with a margin of error of 4 percent. A copy of the full survey is available at: http://www.justiceatstake.org/resources/justice_at_stake_polls.cfm.