Campaign cash casts a pall over Supreme Court
The seven state Supreme Court justices poised to rule on whether a grand jury report on child sexual abuse will be made public collectively received more than $180,000 in campaign contributions from lawyers now fighting over the document’s release.
If that’s not a conflict of interest, nothing is — a conflict likely to erode public confidence in a court that has demonstrated partisanship in the past and has no business interfering in the grand jury’s work anyway.
By now, the public is used to fatcat lobbyists and other big donors lining the campaign coffers of political candidates. If they’re elected and turn out to be toadies for special interests, voters can unseat them in the next election. It may be difficult, but most elected officials have to run again every two or four years.
Not so judges. Once they’re elected, they face only low-key retention votes every 10 years. They’re impossible to dislodge unless they do something indefensibly stupid, like getting caught up in a pornographic email scandal as former state Supreme Court justices Seamus McCaffery and J. Michael Eakin did. Both lost their robes over that one.
The question now is whether the court’s decision on whether to release a report on child sexual abuse by priests in six dioceses will be influenced by the campaign contributions, rather than the legal arguments, of donor-lawyers arguing for or against the document’s release. The majority of the donations came from lawyers and firms hoping to block the report.
A grand jury spent about two years investigating abuse in the Pittsburgh, Greensburg, Allentown, Erie, Harrisburg and Scranton dioceses. The dioceses publicly agreed not to challenge the release of the report. But the devil was in the details. At least two dozen current and former clergy members criticized by the grand jury decided to try to stop it themselves, and they succeeded in persuading the Supreme Court to sit on the report while it reviews their claims that they didn’t get a fair shake.
If the justices kill the report, alter it, order it modified or rule that the two dozen or so anonymous petitioners have the right to present their own evidence, they will fundamentally alter the grand jury process and undercut its usefulness as a law enforcement tool. Those criticized but not indicted by a grand jury already have a right of rebuttal and to have those statements appended to the report. This is what the law allows, but the risk is that the court will rule it is not enough.
It says something about the pervasiveness of campaign spending that all seven justices — five Democrats and two Republicans — have received campaign contributions from one or more of the lawyers or firms fighting over release of the report. This disgraceful financial connection gives the public reason to wonder whether campaign donations factor into rulings in many of the courts across the state.
The court needs to release the grand jury’s report without alteration. Then it needs to study ways to improve public confidence in the judiciary, including how to keep campaign contributions from casting a pall over its own cases.