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Supreme Court's campaign donations ruling likely to have little effect on Tampa Bay judges

Members of the Tampa Bay area legal community don't expect much local fallout from the U.S. Supreme Court decision this week that, for the first time, requires elected judges to take themselves off cases involving generous campaign donors.

Justices and appellate judges in Florida are appointed, unlike the West Virginia Supreme Court justice ordered off a case that overturned a $50 million verdict against a company whose chief executive contributed $3 million in his election.

The state's county and circuit judges face re-election every four to six years, respectively. But they can't get more than $500 in individual campaign contributors, and their donations rarely come from corporate fat cats.

Instead, their campaigns are funded largely by the attorneys who practice before them. That system comes with its own concerns, though local attorneys and judges insist that due process is not dictated by campaign money.

"I know it sounds almost Pollyannish," said Hillsborough Circuit Judge William Levens, but "the reality is the judges take (their) oath more seriously than any debt that would flow from a campaign contribution."

Laughing, he added, "I have ruled against contributors."

When Levens filed for re-election last year, all but three of his 155 contributors were lawyers. He returned the bulk of the money after drawing no challengers.

One of those contributors, civil trial attorney Chris Knopik, said some people might contribute to judicial races hoping that their clients will somehow benefit. But he suspects the majority of lawyers write checks for the same reason he does: "Because I felt that they were definitely the superior candidate and not because I expected anything."

Lawyers are often the only people contributing to judicial campaigns because they are also the only ones paying attention to them, said Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge W. Douglas Baird.

"The public doesn't know whether (judges) are good or bad, or smart or stupid," he said. "This is the whole problem with electing judges."

Legal types acknowledged, however, the corrupting political influence that could occur with an appointment-only system.

Though local judicial races have grown more expensive, none has had anywhere near the money involved in the extreme case at the center of this week's Supreme Court decision.

Justice Anthony Kennedy said not every campaign contribution by a litigant or attorney creates a "probability of bias."

Supreme Court's campaign donations ruling likely to have little effect on Tampa Bay judges 06/09/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 9, 2009 10:49pm]
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