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Study Indicates Likely Corruption in Louisiana Supreme Court

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If a study detailed in a forthcoming Tulane Law Review article is right, judicial campaign contributions talk in Louisiana’s highest court. In “The Louisiana Supreme Court in Question: An Empirical and Statistical Study of the Effect of Campaign Money on the Judicial Function,” Tulane Law Professor Vernon Palmer and Loyola University economist John Levendis show a substantial statistical correlation between a party’s campaign contributions and favorable treatment from three of the seven Louisiana Supreme Court jurists, including current Chief Justice Pascal F. Calogero, Jr.

The study examined cases decided between 1992 and 2006, and focused on tort/negligence and constitutional law cases where justices typically have more discretion. It showed that the individual justices on the court encountered a campaign contributor in 17% of cases heard, with some 47% of all cases heard in the court involving a donor to at least one justice’s campaign committee. The pair concluded that “[s]tatistically speaking, campaign donors have a favored status among litigants appearing before the Justices.”

The authors examined each justice’s tendencies on the bench – for example, whether she was typically a “defendant’s judge” or a “plaintiff’s judge.” These data were collected in order to determine whether a justice’s legal philosophy might be the reason for favorable treatment received from the court. A justice’s shift away from his usual voting preferences in cases involving a donor, then, would lead to the conclusion that donors are not simply supporting the justice whose judicial philosophy and tendencies most favor their cases, but rather influencing the outcome through campaign contributions. The authors recorded how each justice performed when a campaign contributor was before her, and determined how the size of the party’s campaign contribution affected the likelihood of a favorable verdict. The figures indicated that Justices Calogero, Kimball, and Weimer were all more likely to render a favorable verdict to the party who was a “net contributor,” i.e. made a larger donation to that justice than did the other party. For example, a defendant’s odds of receiving the support of Judge Kimball were shown to increase by 30% with each $1000 campaign contribution. When Palmer and Levendis factored in the timing of the gift, the correlation became even more pronounced: a donation within the prior month correlated to more than twice the likelihood of support from Justice Kimball, for example.

While the authors take pains to stress that the study shows correlation and not necessarily corruption, the reaction from the justices implicated by the study has been sharp. The justices have denied any causal relationship between campaign cash and friendly treatment by the court. Justice Kimball said, “I have never in my life made one single decision based on who the plaintiffs were or who the lawyers were,” and noted that she has a hired fundraising coordinator and does not personally solicit contributions or otherwise oversee her campaign’s war chest.

Palmer says that the study was originally inspired by his doubts about the propriety of elected justices sitting for their donors’ cases, but Levendis has pointed out in a recent presentation at an economics conference in Auburn, Alabama that mandatory recusal in such cases would not be likely to resolve the problem. If a justice were forbidden from hearing a donor’s case, Levendis reasoned, litigants might then make strategic campaign contributions in order to “knock out” the jurists most likely to be hostile to their cases. Although the remedy to this troubling problem remains an open question, one can be sure that possible solutions are being weighed in the bayou state.

March 27, 2008