Merit Retention Turns Justice Into Politics

One of the largest pitfalls of merit retention is that it forces justices to become politicians. As a recent New York Times editorial points out, justices must now waste time actively campaigning and raising money. Without doing so, justices run the risk of sharing the same fate as Marsha Ternus, David Baker, and Michael Streit, the three Iowa Supreme Court justices who were removed from office during the 2010 elections. The Iowa justices faced a flurry of attack ads from Super-PACs run by conservative fringe groups. Without campaigning and raising money, justices run the risk of being overwhelmed on the air again this fall.

The most glaring problem with merit retention is that it changes the way Supreme Courts vote. One of the main ideas behind the Supreme Court was that they would be committed to justice and immune from politics. However, the threat of removal from office has forced Supreme Courts to pander to voters and campaign donors while ignoring real justice. The Center for American Progress recently conducted a study that showed Supreme Courts in Alabama, Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Illinois, are significantly more likely to rule in favor of corporations and big business. Between 2000 and 2010 the study showed that these Supreme Courts ruled in favor of corporations 71% of the time, a stunningly high percentage. The correlation to merit retention is evident as spending against justices has been extremely high in all of these states.

Supreme Court Justices, especially in Florida, have been on high alert since the 2010 results in Iowa. Even though the attempts to remove the justices are completely without merit, right-wing funding has put them in real danger. The Florida justices have had the deck stacked against them more so than any other Supreme Court in the country. The Florida group has done nothing worthy of being removed aside from being “too liberal.” Nonetheless, they have been forced to actively hit the campaign trail as a result of well funded attacks and lack of support from even their own governor, Rick Scott.

The push for the removal of Supreme Court justices is pushing the American legal system into dangerously uncharted waters. Right-wing ideologues such as Karl Rove, Rick Scott, and the Koch brothers have seemingly hijacked the legal system. While justices should be worried about the law they have now been forced to worry about their jobs. Even if efforts to remove justices fail, the far right will have still accomplished something: forcing Supreme Courts everywhere to keep politics in mind when they vote. It’s becoming clearer every day that merit retention is a poisonous path that is threatening to undermine our entire legal system.