Washington State: “Stop Buying Supreme Court Justices Now” initiative filed; would mandate recusal for justices receiving $1000 in campaign contributions

This year’s been fairly quiet for initiatives related to courts, however one was filed yesterday (h/t Gavel Grab for the news story).

The “Stop Buying Supreme Court Justices Now” initiative would submit a proposed law to the legislature (rather than directly to the ballot as a proposed law or constitutional amendment). Under it justices of the supreme court, and only justices of the supreme court, would be required to recuse if they received more than $1,000 in contributions from a party or attorney in a case.

(a) Any judge sitting on the supreme court shall disqualify himself or herself if the judge learns by means of a timely motion by a party or a party’s counsel that an adverse party or an adverse party’s counsel has provided financial support for any of the judge’s judicial election campaigns within the last six years in an amount equal to or greater than one thousand dollars.

(b) A judge who fails to disqualify himself or herself after proof has been made that the judge is subject to mandatory recusal under subsection (a) of this section is guilty of judicial misconduct and is subject to sanctions imposed by the commission on judicial conduct.

The impetus appears to be recent decisions of the state’s supreme court striking down the state’s funding for charter schools and mandating additional K-12 funding from the legislature (including holding the legislature in contempt). Several members of the court received campaign money from the state’s teachers union.

The initiative would need to get signatures from at least 246,372 registered voters by January 1, 2016. It should be noted similar efforts that succeeded in the last decade (I-591 & I-594 circulated in 2013, I-517 & I-522 circulated in 2012, and I-502 circulated in 2011) started their signature gathering in April-June.

If the signatures were collected, the initiative would be taken up by the 2016 legislature which would have 3 options:

  1. Adopt as is, in which case it would become law assuming the governor signs it. This does not appear to have occurred since 1994.
  2. Adopt an amended version, in which case both the original and amended version go on the ballot in November 2016. This option does not appear to happen that often if at all.
  3. Reject or ignore it, in which case it would go to the ballot in November 2016, which typically occurs.

Several states have similar provisions that require, or create a presumption, for recusal for certain specific contribution levels.

  1. Alabama: Sliding scale. There is a “rebuttable presumption” in favor of recusal if the party or attorney gave 10% (appellate), 15% (general jurisdiction trial), or 25% (limited jurisdiction trial) of the judge’s total campaign receipts.
  2. Arizona: Must disqualify for contributions over $5,000.
  3. California:Must disqualify for contributions over $1,500 (trial) or $5,000 (appellate).
  4. Mississippi: May be forced to disqualify if “major donor” defined as more than $2,000 (appellate) or $1,000 (trial).
  5. New York: For trial court judges, case may not be assigned to a judge if received $2,500 (individual attorney or party) or $3,500 (attorney and co-counsel, special council, law firm or firms, or clients).
  6. Utah: Must disqualify for contributions over $50.