Judicial campaign financing and unethical rulings are ethical issues that affect the independence and integrity of judges in practicing their profession. Judicial elections can be defined as an institution that handles the process of electing judges into office. The most prominent unethical behavior that has been connected with judicial elections is commercial enterprises making financial donations in exchange for legal favors in the courtroom. This is a classic case of: “Scratch my back, I scratch yours.”
Various court cases have portrayed how campaign financing can negatively influence judicial ethics. A. Maitland v. Ford Motor Company and Wilson v. Brush Wellman, Inc. (2004) serve as suitable case laws. In 2004, there was a cutthroat competition for election to the office of the State Supreme Court Judge in Ohio pitting the conservative incumbent, Justice O’Donnell, and Democratic candidate William O’Neill. Before this election, the Ohio Supreme Court had a tradition of favoring businesses in their rulings since it was comprised of a Conservative majority of 4 to 3. Justice O’Donnell was hearing three weighty litigations during the election; two were about defective automobiles while one was about toxic substances. The defendants were three companies who went ahead to make financial donations to Justice O’Donnell’s campaign. Come polling day, the incumbent defeated his democratic rival and retained his seat. Justice O’Donnell returned to the courtroom to hear the case and made a ruling that favored the three companies. Considering the outcome, it can easily be deduced that the contributions put Justice O’Donnell in a conflict of interest and skewed his judgment. The fact that the authority governing the judicial elections allowed defendants to contribute to a judge’s campaign involved in their case is highly unethical. This is nothing less than bribery and a conspiracy to obstruct justice (Morga & Saylor, 2017).
States have adopted various strategies to leverage the influence wielded by constituents, elected officers, and lobby groups on the judiciary. In the future, three possible reforms can be incorporated into the State Supreme Court selection process. An outright prohibition should be made against any party with an active court case to have an association with a judge serving in any level of the judicial institution. Secondly, the judicial selection committee should demand that judicial officers disqualify themselves from any case whereby it has been proved that they have an association with any person (s) party to that case. Finally, states should adopt the gubernatorial system of appointing judges at the Supreme Court. Appointments should be subject to approval by lawmakers from both houses, who can initiate an impeachment process where there are solid grounds. The judges should serve under certain term limits. With judicial elections scrapped, this policy will destroy the influence held by interest groups during judicial campaigns while still allowing public representation and oversight in the process. As of today, only five states have employed this system whereas two states have utilized this method to select judges but for courts below the Supreme Court level (Morga & Saylor, 2017).
The Kantian logic which is a deontological theory is an ethical system whose primary concern is an individual’s duty. It posits that people are under obligation to perform their duties and even if the anticipated result is unethical, such duties must never be abandoned. This understanding can be used to argue in favor of Justice O’Donnell who regardless of the outcome, performed his duty as a Supreme Court judge. He sat on the bench and followed through the entire court process to a conclusion without fail. Whether the justice was biased in his judgment or not is unimportant according to Kant as long he fulfilled his duty. On the other hand, Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics which insists on developing and practicing proper character and virtues would implicate Justice O’Donnell.
When applying this perspective on the above ethical issue, it is clear that Aristotle would consider Justice O’Donnell an individual lacking one of the cardinal virtues which are justice (Potter, 2018). Therefore, the whole case example would be a depiction of unethical conduct. Utilitarianism is an ethics system that does not use a preconceived set of ethical parameters to judge the moral nature of a decision or action. The principle behind it is that human beings inherently desire to maximize pleasure and avoid pain. Therefore, if an action achieves the greatest good for the most people it is considered right; if an action inflicts more pain than pleasure to the majority of the population then it is wrong. Therefore, the only way to determine the morality of our case example is to answer the question: how many people benefitted or suffered from Justice O’Donnell’s ruling, and which number is greater?
The role of the media including the new media, in exposing judicial corruption and unethical conduct cannot be understated. Free media can demand that the public and private sectors be accountable and transparent in their dealings. Internationally, investigative journalism has yielded tremendous results in exposing fraudulent practices that have led to criminal proceedings. For example, in South Africa, significant corruption and unethical legal practice at the senior levels of government were uncovered by investigative news reports which prompted an inquiry into the matter by the Office of the Public Protector. These investigations resulted in the implication of President Jacob Zuma for unethical and illegal conduct which forced his resignation (“Anti-Corruption Module 10 Key Issues: The role of the media in fighting corruption”, 2022).
Anti-Corruption Module 10 Key Issues: The role of the media in fighting corruption. Unodc.org. (2022). Retrieved 6 March 2022, from https://www.unodc.org/e4j/en/anti-corruption/module-10/key-issues/the-role-of-the-media-in-fighting-corruption.html.
Morga, E., & Saylor, C. (2017). Supplying Justice: Unethical Practices in State Supreme Courts. Scholarsarchive.byu.edu. Retrieved 6 March 2022, from https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1273&context=byuplr.
Potter, N. (2018). Logos II – Virtue Ethics and Political Corruption: An Ethical Case Study. Researchonline.nd.edu.au. Retrieved 6 March 2022, from https://researchonline.nd.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1001&context=aristos.