Judicial campaigns missing the point, attorney says

John O'Brien Jan. 10, 2007, 9:37pm


NEW ORLEANS - Judicial candidates need to be more worried about showing an aptitude for the law and less concerned with weighing in on hot-button issues, according to the head of Louisiana's Judicial Campaign Oversight Committee.

Harry Hardin III, an attorney with Jones Walker who acts as the committee's chairman, says that his state is making strides in the area of judicial campaign advertising and other states could possibly learn from it.

"As the issues got bigger -- everything from abortion to tort reform to capitol punishment, whatever the hot issue was -- and you saw the money flowing into judicial campaigns, in the advertising you'd see much more partisan activity and more attack ads attacking the character or voting history of the opponent," Hardin said.

"The knives got sharper and sharper. The judiciary is supposed to be different from the executive and legislative branches because it is supposed to be a law-interpreting body, not a law-making body."

In 2002, the Louisiana Supreme Court created the LJCOC, allowing it to provide judicial candidates with information on how to run a more civil campaign.

"It sounds trite, but most of the ads have been more high-minded toward the qualifications of the person who's running and not trying to attack the qualifications of the other side," Hardin said.

If two-thirds of the committee members agree that a candidate has violated the Code of Judicial Conduct, it can issue a statement saying such but has no real authority over punishment.

Hardin said that in the more than four years of the committee's existence, only once has it had to go to that length. Other times, it met with a candidate and alerted he or she of a problem, and in return the candidate pulled the ad.

Between 2003-2006, two-thirds of judicial candidates in Louisiana signed the campaign conduct acknowledgement form.

Only Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi are believed to have judicial campaign oversight committees.

"It's possible (they could work in other states)," Hardin said. "For example, Ohio, Michigan, possibly Mississippi and Texas, there have been some knife fight-type elections to the extent that if there was a committee, maybe not one with disciplinary power but had the bully pulpit of the press, it could have a therapeutic effect at the end of the day," Hardin said.

The Ohio Chamber of Commerce recently echoed the sentiments of Hardin in endorsing new Justice Robert Cupp, elected two months ago. The Chamber said Cupp's dedication to making Ohio's legal climate stable and predictable creates an environment that will attract businesses and create jobs.

Minnesota previously had a law on the books that prevented prospective judges from discussing issues.

In Minnesota v. White, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that it was unconstitutional on June 27, 2002, in a 5-4 vote. Retired Justice Sandra Day O'Conner, according to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle, admitted to a public audience that she regrets her majority vote because it has helped create the partisan activities of judicial campaigns.

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