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In-box: IBA's move is a step in the right direction

September 15, 2010
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Letters to the Editor

To the editor:

Several articles have been written on the recently announced Indianapolis Bar Association PAC relating to judicial campaign contributions. The article appearing in this paper compelled me to write this letter to the editor.

Our legal community has for years worked under a system that requires judicial candidates to fund-raise from lawyers who appear before them. This puts attorneys and judges alike in the untenable position of being linked both by money and justice. With the U.S. Supreme Court case of Caperton v. Massey came the recognition that this system can, and often does, create an appearance of impropriety that simply is not tolerable. The court gave no bright-line test to determine when direct campaign contributions are beyond scrutiny; no threshold amount was offered for guidance, and there was no exclusion for “judges in Marion County who have integrity.” Is the amount of the contribution the guiding factor, or is it the personal financial support that is key? Does a client care whether $150 or $1,500 was given or is the issue really the direct financial link between attorney and judge? In his dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts recognized that the opinion provided no guidance on these issues and opined that the case would “inevitably lead to an increase in allegations that judges are biased, however groundless those charges may be.”

To the astute, informed reader, the opinion left unanswered the question of when direct contributions, in any amount, are ever acceptable between lawyer and judge. Indeed, Caperton raised the profile of an issue deserving of legitimate concern and did nothing to quell the public perception that perhaps justice can be bought. Just this past year, attorneys were scrutinized by the media for hosting fundraisers and contributing to public officials in the legal field. The public was led to believe that these contributions, no matter how small, were evidence of untoward motivations and ill-gotten gains. In fact, this very paper used speculation and innuendo to imply that attorneys were buying justice for their clients. The Indiana Lawyer article “Justice for Sale?” was similarly off the mark.

The real story here is that lawyers are concerned about misconceptions surrounding the legal system and are working to do something about it. As with every initiative undertaken, the bar does not respond with a “knee-jerk” reaction. Instead, the issues brought to light by Caperton over a year ago were carefully studied and all options were considered. The alternative offered by the bar to avoid direct contributions to judicial campaigns neither presents constitutional free speech concerns as suggested by “some people” in the article, nor does it solve all issues relating to the election of trial judges in Marion County. The proper, honest role that money plays in judicial elections is just one of those issues. The IBA through its board has, creatively and courageously, attempted to undertake positive reform in this regard.

All too often, tough issues get buried for fear of facing them; problems persist rather than solutions being implemented because answers are not easy or risk-free. As the PAC is put to use, it will be refined as with everything the bar does. We don’t take that task lightly. That the PAC has been criticized by some as not enough does not detract from the fact that it is, first and foremost, a step in the right direction.•

Christine Hayes Hickey, President

Indianapolis Bar Association

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