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The Muckraker

Dan Noyes | Update: Judicial Independence | February 18, 2010

Re-airing of CIR doc reveals Justice Kennedy's concerns about campaign cash

CIR’s television documentary Justice for Sale, a 1999 co-production with Frontline and Bill Moyers as correspondent, receives a timely rebroadcast on the February 19, 2010 edition of Bill Moyers’ Journal (in an edited version revised to fit the Bill Moyers’ Journal format). It is timely because Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy recently cast the key swing vote in a Supreme Court decision freeing up business and special interest contributions to political campaigns. In the 1999 Justice for Sale broadcast, Kennedy told Moyers of his deep concern about the negative effect of contributions in state judicial elections and warned they can cause the perception or reality that judicial independence is undermined.

Clearly Justice Kennedy’s concerns for judicial elections do not bridge the divide between his warning on that issue and his free-swinging approach to political campaign contributions as shown in his opinion announced last month in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which erased two of the court's precedents and decades of legislative restrictions on corporate and special interest spending in political campaigns. Now it’s up to the legislative branch to go back to the drawing board and attempt to design new campaign finance laws that will create the public perception or political reality that Congress and the President are not the captives of special interests and the highest bidder.

Justice for Sale is one example in a long line of CIR work that examines the influence of special interests and campaign cash on public affairs. Award-winning Frontline documentaries The Best Campaign Money Can Buy (1992) and So You Want to Buy a President? (1996) examined presidential campaigns. A series of stories in Salon.com in 2004 and 2005 examined the influence of corporate and special interests on the federal judicial nomination process: "Courting Big Business," "Big Biz Battles for Bush's Bench," "The Moneyed Scales of Justice," and "Harriet Miers Is All Business." Other stories have looked at issues ranging from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R.Ky) fundraising methods to how local real estate contributions affect zoning and health and safety issues.

Perhaps the one sure bet to come out of the Supreme Court decision to free up special interest money in political campaigns: CIR reporters and others will have their hands full trying to keep up with the resulting stories.

Dan Noyes was executive producer for CIR for Justice for Sale. He is a co-founder of CIR and for 30 years was on CIR's staff as a reporter, then editor, and served three stints as executive director or acting executive director.

Will Evans | Update: Judicial Independence | November 16, 2007

Bush nominates two who gave him money

President Bush chose to fill two high-level positions yesterday with federal judges who had given him campaign contributions while under consideration for their judgeships.

Bush nominated Judge Gene Pratter, of Pennsylvania, to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a level just below the U.S. Supreme Court. Pratter, who was featured in the CIR report, “Money Trails to the Federal Bench,” gave $2,000 to Bush in 2003, after interviewing with the White House for her judgeship.

Bush also picked Judge Mark Filip, of Illinois, to be deputy attorney general, the No. 2 spot in the Justice Department. Filip gave Bush $2,000 in 2003, after the president nominated him for his judgeship, as earlier reported by CIR.

There are no laws against political contributions by a judicial candidate, but some ethics experts and federal judges say that it is inappropriate.

Pratter also gave $1,500 to Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.) in 2003, around the time she interviewed for her district judgeship with Specter’s bipartisan selection panel.

To fill Pratter’s spot on the federal district court, Bush nominated an attorney who also gave money to Sen. Specter while reportedly being pushed for a judgeship by the senator.

Carolyn P. Short gave Specter $2,300 on March 29, 2007, though he is not up for reelection until 2010. It was Short’s first federal donation since 1998, when she gave to a Democrat, according to government records. The Legal Intelligencer reported that Specter was advocating for a Short judgeship as early as fall 2006. Short served as general counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee during 2005 and 2006 at Specter’s request. Specter is currently the ranking Republican on the committee, which reviews Bush’s nominations. Short did not respond to a call and email requesting comment.

In a 2006 interview with CIR, Specter said political donations are “not a factor” in who gets recommended for judgeships. He said that once an individual becomes a “prospect” for a judgeship, that person should not continue to make contributions. When informed that a few Pennsylvania judges had given donations after that point, Specter said, “If I had known about it, I would have returned their contributions. I don’t want anybody to think that it's relevant.”

To read the comments of federal judges on the issue of campaign contributions by judicial candidates, click here.

Ben Lurie | Update: Judicial Independence | August 13, 2007

The reinvention of Robert Conrad

For political pundits, the worst kind of judicial nominee is one who is bland, who's rarely dragged into the political muck, who's hard to attack or question. Robert Conrad, President Bush's nominee to North Carolina's Fourth Circuit Appeals Court, has worked hard to reinvent himself as a blank face of justice, eschewing his outspoken past. But Conrad's history of passionate editorial writing came to light before he became a United States district judge in 2005, and the same controversial comments will likely make an atavistic appearance at his upcoming confirmation hearings.

Conrad's critiques of liberal causes could well stir up the Democratic nest: In 1999, when Conrad was a prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Western North Carolina, he went after a group of nuns who opposed the death penalty. In a letter to the editor printed in the Catholic Dossier, he referred to Sister Helen Prejean as a "church-hating nun" and said that her book was merely "liberal drivel." In the late 1980s, while he was in private practice, Conrad attacked Planned Parenthood in an Op-Ed titled "Planned Parenthood: A Radical, Pro-Abortion Fringe Group," Conrad claimed in the Charlotte Observer piece that "Planned Parenthood knowingly kills unborn babies, not fetuses, as a method of 'post-conception' contraception, and to them that's OK."

Recently, though, Conrad has tried to detach himself from his past words, saying in 2005: "I believe that my record as a U.S. Attorney demonstrates that I have enforced the law impartially," and that "I have had no occasion to study or form views about Planned Parenthood in the past 15 years."

Looking back on his years in the U.S. Attorney's Office, Conrad took great pride in his successful prosecution of the first capital case after North Carolina reestablished its death penalty: he won a sentence of death. In addition, while Conrad was U.S. Attorney, he vigorously pursued immigration violations, as well as robbery and weapons cases, according to data published by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

Currently, no date has been set for Conrad's confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, but for a nominee who has had "no occasion to study or form views" on controversial topics, there remains a line of inquiry senate Democrats may find fruitful.

Miers to testify?

The congressional caucus gunning for AG Alberto Gonzalez and, perhaps,
seeking a thorough investigation, seems undeterred by last week’s failure to
pass a vote of no confidence against the nation’s lead law enforcer. Subpoenas are now in the works for two White House insiders as Democrats in Congress press ahead with their investigation into the firing of eight federal prosecutors. Former White House counsel and one-time Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers will soon be called to testify. She’ll be joined by former White House political director Sara Taylor.

It’s a direct volley into the West Wing as the Bush Administration has thus far refused to allow sworn testimony from senior White House officials. If Big Al’s testimony was any indication, however, this volley will be nothing but duds.

Will Evans | Update: Judicial Independence | January 9, 2007

Bush drops Boyle nomination

Bloomberg reports: "Boyle declined an invitation last month by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to withdraw his nomination, said Lars H. Liebeler, a Washington lawyer and former Boyle law clerk who spoke on behalf of the judge. 'The attorney general called Judge Boyle and told him that Haynes, Myers and Wallace had submitted letters saying their nominations should be withdrawn and asked Judge Boyle what he wanted to do,' said Liebeler, who has been championing Boyle's nomination. 'Judge Boyle said, if the president didn't want to renominate him, he would understand that decision but he was not going to quit.' On Jan. 5, Gonzales telephoned Boyle to say that Bush's advisers had concluded that the judge couldn't win Senate confirmation and recommended Bush not resubmit his name to the Senate, Liebeler said. He said Boyle told Gonzales that he understood the political reality."

Will Evans | Update: Judicial Independence | September 29, 2006

Boyle denied, infuriating conservatives

Boyle's nomination was again returned to the President because it did not receive unanimous consent to stay pending in the Senate over the long recess. President Bush will have to renominate Boyle, as he did on Sept. 5, to keep his confirmation chances alive.

The Senate Judiciary Committee today failed to vote on Boyle's nomination, passing up its last chance to move him out of committee before the Senate adjourns for the November election. The lack of action on Boyle and other appellate nominees has infuriated conservatives. The next chance for Boyle would be during a "lame duck" session of Congress after the election.

Will Evans | Update: Judicial Independence | September 19, 2006

Federal courts to use "conflict-checking" software

The Judicial Conference of the United States approved a new policy requiring "all federal courts to use conflict-checking computer software to identify cases in which judges may have a financial conflict of interest and should disqualify themselves." This was prompted by "recent reports" that "several judges may have participated in matters in which they had a financial interest," according to a memo sent to all federal judges in August.

Will Evans | Update: Judicial Independence | September 5, 2006

Leahy and Kennedy condemn Boyle renomination

President Bush formally renominates Terrence Boyle to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, following through on his Aug. 30 announcement. Also, Senators Leahy and Kennedy both issue statements condemning the renomination of Boyle, citing his conflicts of interest.

Will Evans | Update: Judicial Independence | September 4, 2006

Senate Republicans push for Boyle

The Raleigh News & Observer reports that the next several weeks that the Senate is in session are critical for Boyle. Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute said of Senate Republicans: "This may be their last bite at the apple for nominations like Boyle's. But it sure seems to me this is not likely to go forward without a big controversy." The paper's Barbara Barrett also reports that, behind the scenes, Boyle's former clerks have made more than 30 trips to Washington to push his nomination. One former clerk said, "I think we're on the cusp of getting him a vote." According to the paper, the White House wants to see Boyle confirmed immediately and "is expected to be bending ears in the Senate." And Sen. Elizabeth Dole says she works on Boyle's case "each and every day," adding that she sees "growing and considerable support" among the Gang of 14 moderates. Dole said, "Certainly I would hope we would be able to get a vote in September."

Will Evans | Update: Judicial Independence | September 3, 2006

Specter speaks on Fox News about Boyle

On Fox News Sunday, Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter addressed the Boyle nomination: "Well, I think it does have big problems. When you have a judge who has ruled on cases where there was stock of his own involved, yeah. He has given an explanation, that they were minor, that they were oversights, but there are a number of them. But let's consider that. Again, it's a matter of an evaluation and a matter of judgment, but I think that Judge Boyle ought to have an up or down vote in the Senate. Chances are, candidly, Chris, he'll be filibustered, but so far as I'm concerned, as chairman, I'm going to move them right along one at a time and let the full Senate make its judgment."