Bid for the Bench, or Justice for Sale?

Candidate Seamus McCaffery is preparing for election day on Nov. 6. He's appeared at picnics, parades, even several motorcycle events, wearing a black leather vest surrounded by biker buddies.

But he's not your average candidate. He's not even a politician. He's a judge. And he is trying to get a seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Pennsylvania is one of 22 states that have contested state Supreme Court elections. The states have varying degrees of regulations from contribution limits to advertising disclosures to public financing limits. Critics of the system say that the fundraising for the elections has gotten out of control.

McCaffery calls himself a "walking, talking American dream." He has served as a police officer and spent 11 and a half years at night school to become a lawyer and trial judge.

He currently sits as an appellate superior court judge of Pennsylvania and may be best known as the judge who set up the Eagles Court at Philadelphia's Veterans stadium to bring immediate justice to overly rowdy fans.

He has raised more than a $1 million for his race.

Fundraising efforts in his state have exceeded $5 million, and are smashing previous records. The election has seen a sharp influx of fancy Web sites, campaign commercials and speeches on the campaign trail.

In last year's election for state Supreme Court seats, TV ads ran in 10 of the 11 states with contested elections. Average television spending per state was $1.6 million.

But watchdog groups see real problems with judges becoming beholden to special interests that donate to judicial campaigns. Those advocating reform believe special interest pressure is metastasizing into a permanent national threat to the impartiality of American courts.

According to Justice at Stake, which monitors judicial elections and ballot measures, Pennsylvania is not the only state breaking records.

Candidates for the Alabama Supreme Court have combined to raise $54 million since 1993, more than any state in the country. Special interest groups in Washington state combined to spend over $2.7 million on top court campaigns, and every TV ad in those races in 2006 was paid for by third-party groups.

Critics of the elections are hoping for a change in the system. In Minnesota, voters may consider a constitutional amendment that would change how the state's judges are chosen.

"When judges must raise big money for their election campaigns, public confidence in America's courts is undermined," said Jesse Rutledge, a spokesman for Justice at Stake.

"Increasingly, judges are facing escalating pressure to be accountable to special interests and political partisans instead of the law and the Constitution."

McCaffery tells potential voters on his Web site to "come out and vote" because "I need your help." His Web site flashes pictures of him touting his experience and asking for volunteers to distribute literature door to door.

On the Web site, he admits that the "hardest part of a campaign is raising money," but he has no qualm with the system and thinks it is far better than a "merit based system" favored in other states where a governor might select a judge.

McCaffery said Pennsylvania is "lucky we have elections" and said that a governor's choice in a merit based system would not be a "poor guy like me who went to night school."

He was born in Belfast, Ireland, and he's "proud" of his campaign because he is meeting the people. "They want to see who they are going to elect," he said.

And he said that judges, whether they get their money from labor unions, trial lawyers or other special interests, are "not predisposed."

Judge Bill O'Neill, a former candidate for the Ohio Supreme Court, agrees that the system may not be crooked but he said it is a problem of perception.

O'Neill, who lost his bid, ran on a motto: "No money from nobody."

"I just think that it is wholly improper for any judge to take money from anyone." He said such a system hurts lawyers, judges and litigants.

"God forbid you be dragged into court," O'Neill said. "Do you really want your case to be decided by a judge who received a $100 contribution from your opponent's lawyer at a cocktail party?"

According to Justice at Stake, nearly 90 percent of all state judges in America face re-election. In states without elections, there is a combination of merit selection systems with up or down votes for retention.

O'Neill is proud of the campaign he ran for the court seat. But now he's choosing to run for U.S. Congress. "In my last campaign," he said, "I told people as a judge I don't want any of your money. This year as a candidate for Congress I tell them I want all your money. A congressional race is totally different."