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Courting trouble

The Supreme Court’s ruling last week in the case of a grandiosely unethical West Virginia justice opened a new field of constitutional review -- the high court may now consider when an elected state court jurist has been so tainted by politics that due process requires him to recuse himself from a case.

In West Virginia, a coal executive spent more than $3 million to unseat a sitting state Supreme Court justice; it was money well spent, as the justice was defeated by voters and replaced by Brent Benjamin. Benjamin then did what was expected of him and cast a deciding vote in overturning a $50-million jury award against the executive’s coal company.

Benjamin’s participation in the case assured him a place in the judiciary’s annals of shame, and his corruption was so blatant that the U.S. Supreme Court majority that rebuked him argued that it was not opening the door to many future challenges. Surely, it reasoned, no justice will behave this badly again. That may or may not prove to be true -- the court offered little in the way of guidance as to what constitutes impermissible political influence -- yet Benjamin’s case sadly but surely will not be the last in which big-money politics and judicial independence collide.

Indeed, California has wrestled with this problem before -- and quite possibly could again.

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California’s system for selecting Supreme Court justices is much better than West Virginia’s. Candidates for the court here are nominated by the governor, confirmed by a state commission and then placed on the bench. They must periodically stand for retention, but they are not, as they are in West Virginia, subject to direct challenge by rival candidates. A retention election can cost a justice his or her seat, but it does not let voters kick out one justice and install their own replacement.

California’s rules have helped balance the judiciary’s independence with the public’s fair insistence on accountability, but even this state’s reasonable retention process has been subject to tilt. Most notable was the 1986 retention election that removed Chief Justice Rose Bird and two associate justices, Cruz Reynoso and Joseph Grodin. Much reflection has gone into that race in the decades since, and opinions differ on its merits. Two truths, however, stand the test of deep inquiry: The forces arrayed against Bird were not motivated solely by her opposition to the death penalty -- that was cover for a second complaint, which was her defense of consumer rights against corporate power -- and Reynoso and Grodin were victims of a special-interest crusade against a vulnerable chief.

Would that we could relegate that episode to California’s history. In fact, the state rumbles with discontent over its high court and chief, and those stirrings contain alarming echoes of the battle of 1986.

At issue are the court’s rulings on same-sex marriage and Proposition 8, and its chief justice, Ronald M. George. In May 2008, the court overturned the state’s ban on gay marriage, striking a victory for civil rights in the grandest tradition of constitutional protection of minorities. A few months later, after voters approved Proposition 8 and amended the state Constitution to ban the same institution that the court had upheld, George and his colleagues upheld the amendment. Both times, George wrote for the majority. He thus angered opponents of gay marriage in 2008 and supporters of it in 2009.

By California’s rules, George faces a retention election in 2010, and some predict that he could face challenges from either side -- or even both -- in this polarizing debate.

That would be a shame for the state’s judiciary, an unfortunate attack on judicial independence and an unfair castigation of one of this state’s most principled and admirable public officials. In the gay-marriage cases, George’s votes demonstrated conscience, professionalism and restraint. He voted to uphold same-sex unions out of the strong conviction -- which this page shares -- that the Constitution does not allow society to deny the protection of marriage to gay couples any more than it once denied it to those united across race. The ruling was right on the law, and will certainly be validated over the long march of history.

Months later, voters tacked in the other direction, narrowly rejecting gay marriage and amending the Constitution to allow California to recognize only the unions of heterosexual couples. That was challenged, naturally, and the lawsuit offered the court the opportunity to extend its earlier ruling, though on shaky constitutional grounds -- advocates for same-sex marriage argued that Proposition 8 was such an affront to the rights of Californians that it revised the Constitution rather than merely amending it. Scholars split on the merits of that argument, and although the strong consensus of legal opinion rejected it, an opportunistic justice might have seized the chance to solidify his legacy.

Instead, George subordinated his politics -- as evidenced by his writing -- to the weight of constitutional opinion. He voted to uphold the proposition, even though it undid his own work. Permitted latitude within the strictures of the Constitution in the first case, George was able to vote his conscience; bound by the Constitution in the second case, he yielded.

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Such is the lot of a principled judicial officer, but those concerned only with results already have signaled their unhappiness with George. The moneyed interests that supported Proposition 8 last fall are considering whether to finance a campaign against George next year. Supporters of gay marriage, who championed his heroism in 2008, were bitterly disappointed when the court upheld the hateful initiative.

This is not West Virginia. Corporate interests are not knocking off justices who disagree with them and seating more accommodating replacements. But intimidation has no place in our judicial life any more than it does in Appalachia. The 1986 campaign against Bird and her colleagues now stands for many as a reminder that well-intentioned systems of accountability may be hijacked by special interests, a lesson learned too often and at great cost in California. It was misguided in its first iteration; it would be regrettable in its second.


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