Judicial Campaign Reforms – Part 4

The relationship between judicial campaign donations and recusal should be clear and unambiguous.

The Mississippi Code of Judicial Conduct is vague and ambiguous when it comes to a recusal based on a judicial campaign donation. The heading of Canon 3(E) states that it provides for “Disqualification,” and the heading for Subsection (2) provides for “Recusal of Judges from Lawsuits Involving Major Donors.” Canon 3(E)(2) reads:

A party may file a motion to recuse a judge based on the fact that an opposing party or counsel of record for that party is a major donor to the election campaign of such judge. Such motions will be filed, considered and subject to appellate review as provided for other motions for recusal.

Commentary

Section 3E(2) recognizes that political donations may but do not necessarily raise concerns about a judge’s impartiality. The filing, consideration and appellate review of motions for recusal based on such donations are subject to rules governing all recusal motions. For procedures concerning motions for recusal and review by the Supreme Court of denial of motions for recusal as to trial court judges, see M.R.C.P. 16A, URCCC 1.15, Unif. Chanc. R. 1.11, and M.R.A.P. 48B. For procedures concerning motions for recusal of judges of the Court of Appeals or Supreme Court justices, see M.R.A.P. 27(a). This provision does not appear in the ABA Model Code of Judicial Conduct; however, see Section 3E(1)(e) of the ABA model.

(Emphasis added).

The headings indicate that this Canon is the operative rule on the “Disqualification” and “Recusal of Judges from Lawsuits Involving Major Donors.” Instead, it only states “a party may file” a motion rather than when the judge must recuse. This is not a rule. Canon 3(E)(2) should either set a clear or objective standard for when a campaign donation would result in the recusal of a judge or it should be removed from the Canons.

I suggest Canon 3(E)(2) be amended to state exactly when a judge shall or must recuse based on a campaign donation by a “major donor.”

I also suggest that the amounts for a “major donor” should be higher. I believe that a major donor for appellate court races should be $10,000 per individual and an aggregate of $20,000 for individuals affiliated with an entity. The amount of a “major donor” should be related to the size of the districts and keep pace with the increasing costs of campaigns, which include media advertising, consultants, etc.

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