Unhinged But Unbought

The New York Times took advantage of publicity over the surprise victory of Roy Moore as GOP nominee for Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court in Tuesday’s primaries to thunder editorially against the election of judges:

Mr. Moore plainly benefited from his name recognition — as disturbing as that thought is — and strong support from many of the same evangelical voters who backed Rick Santorum in the presidential primary. His victory is yet one more reminder that choosing judges in partisan elections, rather than through a system of merit selection, can create a serious problem of quality control.

But what’s really bugging the Times about partisan judicial elections, it seems, isn’t that it elevates the occasional yahoo, but that it attracts special-interest money. Here’s where the editorial gets really exercised in terms of the Alabama race:

The taint from all the special interest money has been especially strong in Alabama. The judicial candidates in Tuesday’s decisive primary contests raised roughly $2 million. In 2006, candidates for five Supreme Court seats spent a total of $13.4 million in both the primary and general election. While the numbers will certainly end up lower this year, it may be because all but one current member of the State Supreme Court was elected with strong business backing and the plaintiff’s bar and other opposing interests with their own deep pockets decided it was not worth competing.

All true. As I noted in my post on Roy yesterday, Alabama was Ground Zero for Karl Rove’s efforts back in the day to obtain business-community financial backing for a Republican takeover of state courts.

But you can’t conflate that problem with Judge Roy. The $2 million the Times mentions as having been spent on the Chief Justice race was mostly spent by his two opponents, whom he beat like a drum. As was the case in his vastly underfunded 2010 gubernatorial campaign, Moore refused to accept “special-interest money,” and only spent $230,000 overall, not a lot for a statewide campaign.

You could make the argument that Roy’s notoriety forced his opponent’s to grub for special-interest money, and I don’t disagree with the Times‘ basic position (I’ll never forget being in Nevada years ago right before an election, and being shocked by the TV ads for a judicial candidate who bragged that he had been nicknamed “The Hanging Judge,” a practice which, fortunately, is prohibited by Bar Association rules in most states). But let’s give the old man his due: he may be unhinged, but he’s unbought.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.