Dec. 1, 2016 10:16 AM

Opposing sides in the fight over coastal restoration aligned behind Marilyn Castle and Jimmy Genovese, making their Louisiana Supreme Court race one of the most expensive ever.

The recent contest for the 3rd District Supreme Court seat vacated by Judge Jeannette Knoll is over, won 51-49 by Republican Appeals Court Judge Jimmy Genovese over fellow Republican District Court Judge Marilyn Castle; yet troubling questions about the race continue to reverberate.

One question concerns the large amount of money spent by both candidates and the even larger amounts spent by outside groups supporting the two candidates. Since when did judicial races, normally sedate affairs decided on temperament, character and aptitude, feature attack ads and millions of dollars in spending? The second troubling question concerns the wisdom of electing judges in the first place. Just what does a person get for his money when he contributes to a judge’s race? Any evidence indicating a contributor received something in return for a contribution would be considered prima facie evidence that the system is corrupt. But in the absence of an expected quid pro quo, what possible advantage could an individual or company have for attempting to influence judicial selection? In fairness, it should be noted that Louisiana is not alone in electing Supreme Court judges and politicizing the judiciary. Currently, 34 states hold an election for their state supreme courts, although not all those elections are partisan as in Louisiana, and many of those take the relatively benign form of referendums on judges already seated.

The general trend in spending on judicial elections has been upward following the 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision that allows super PACs to spend unlimited amounts on issue advocacy, including Supreme Court races in Louisiana. The non-partisan Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks election spending, has called this the most expensive cycle ever for judicial elections with more than $14 million in “outside” (non-candidate) money spent to influence races in a number of states.

The near certainty that the Supreme Court will hear important cases seeking reparation for the damages that oil and gas companies have wreaked on the coast and wetlands for the past 100 years fuels judicial competition in Louisiana. Should these cases be successful, oil companies will face a reckoning likely to be counted in the billions of dollars. Avoiding such a painful settlement impels business interests to spend millions to elect friendly judges while those interested in the success of these same suits invest on the other side.

Seeking to neutralize or attenuate this threat, the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association and the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry identified Castle as less likely to hold big oil responsible for a despoiled environment and a shrinking coastline. Conversely, trial lawyers who would represent the state, environmentalists and other public interest groups felt Genovese was more likely to support their claims.

Funding outside ads supporting Castle in the 3rd District race was the Center for Individual Freedom, an organization that has attempted to influence judicial races in multiple states. One ad impugned Genovese for overturning the “conviction of a man found guilty of attempted forcible rape,” oddly much like a CIF ad accusing Mississippi Judge Jim Kitchens of “siding with child predators.” CIF does not have to disclose its donors, but has received “millions” from Crossroads GPS, which is associated with Karl Rove. Crossroads, formed shortly after the passage of Citizens United, supports Republican candidates in down-ballot races. Outside funding for Genovese ads originates with a PAC called Restore Our Coast, chiefly financed by attorneys who represent clients in suits against oil companies, including Baton Rouge-based Carmouche and Associates.

Despite the attempts by outside PACs to influence its outcome, this race was decided by the one factor that most often sways voters in judicial races: familiarity with the justice. Marilyn Castle won by 17,921 votes in her home parish of Lafayette, while Genovese won by 15,674 votes in his home parish of St. Landry. The deciding parish was Calcasieu, which provided Genovese with nearly all of his 4,791 vote victory margin in the eight-parish district that also includes Acadia, Avoyelles, Cameron, Jefferson Davis and Vermilion.

The odd thing about this campaign is that no one I spoke to disparaged either Genovese or Castle, who are apparently among the nicest people imaginable. The only difference between the two Republican candidates (that I heard) was that Genovese was seen as more open to supporting claims from individuals against businesses, while Castle was seen as more likely to support business interests against litigants. Given this, why did the two candidates find themselves in such a heated race? The friction was produced by those interests who will profit or pay on coastal settlements, when and if such judgments are made.

The intrusion of PAC money into state judicial races has become routine and is not likely to change any time soon as its necessary bulwark, the Citizens United decision, is fervently supported by Republicans. The long-term effect of this advocacy on state courts remains to be seen, but it can hardly be viewed as promoting good government or unbiased judges, bringing — as it does — the judgment of a judge into question when his decisions affect contributors.

Pearson Cross is an associate professor in the Political Science Department at UL Lafayette. He holds a Ph.D. from Brandeis University (1997), and his principal areas of teaching are state and local politics, and Southern politics. Cross interviews local politicians and newsmakers on his radio show, “Bayou to the Beltway,” which airs on KRVS 88.7 FM at 12:30 p.m. on Wednesdays and 5:30 p.m. on Saturdays. Contact him at pearson.cross@lusfiber.net.

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