At least two dozen federal judges appointed by President Bush since 2001 made political contributions to key Republicans or to the president himself while under consideration for their judgeships, government records show. A four-month investigation of Bush-appointed judges by the Center for Investigative Reporting reveals that six appellate court judges and 18 district court judges contributed a total of more than $44,000 to politicians who were influential in their appointments. Some gave money directly to Bush after he officially nominated them. Other judges contributed to Republican campaign committees while they were under consideration for a judgeship.
Republicans who received money from judges en route to the bench include Sens. Arlen Specter and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Sens. George Voinovich and Mike DeWine of Ohio, and Gov. George Pataki of New York.
There are no laws or regulations prohibiting political contributions by a candidate for a federal judgeship. But political giving by judicial candidates has been a rarely scrutinized activity amid the process that determines who will receive lifelong jobs on the federal bench. Some ethics experts and Bush-appointed judges say that political giving is inappropriate for those seeking judicial office — it can appear unethical, they say, and could jeopardize the public's confidence in the impartiality of the nation's courts. Those concerns come as ethics and corruption scandals have roiled Washington, and on the eve of midterm elections whose outcome could influence the makeup of the federal judiciary — including the Supreme Court — for decades to come.
The CIR investigation analyzed the campaign contribution records of 249 judges appointed by Bush nationwide since 2001. The money trail leading from Bush judges to influential politicians runs particularly deep through the political battleground states of Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Since 1990, Judge Deborah Cook, who was confirmed to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in May 2003, gave more than $10,000 to three Ohio Republicans who were instrumental in getting her on the bench. One was Sen. George Voinovich, who is chairman of the Select Committee on Ethics. Another was Sen. Mike DeWine, a member of the Judiciary Committee, which is critical to the confirmation of federal judges. The other was Gov. Bob Taft, who gained national notoriety after he was convicted of ethics violations in 2005 for not reporting gifts he received.
Cook's contributions included $1,000 to Voinovich and $1,500 to Taft after President Bush had nominated Cook, with their backing, in May 2001. Once on the bench, Cook continued giving, contributing $800 to DeWine in December 2005. Political giving while serving on the federal bench is a violation of the official Code of Conduct for U.S. Judges. The code says that "A judge should not … solicit funds for or pay an assessment or make a contribution to a political organization or candidate." DeWine's campaign committee returned the money three weeks after Cook made the contribution.
Another judge, Christopher Boyko, gave $2,000 to Voinovich in August 2004 — his first federal contribution on record since 1996 — less than a month after Bush nominated him for the bench upon the recommendation of Ohio's senators.
Another, Judge John Adams, cut a $1,000 check received by Voinovich's campaign committee just two days before Voinovich and DeWine publicly recommended him to Bush in November 2001. "I've been supportive of the Republican Party and President Bush," Adams said, after DeWine and Voinovich recommended him for the judgeship, according to the Akron Beacon Journal. "I'm sure that had some bearing on the selection." About two months later, in January 2002, Adams gave DeWine $1,500, which was returned to him in February. Then, less than a month after his subsequent nomination by Bush in October 2002, Adams gave $250 more to Voinovich.
Brian Seitchik, a spokesperson for Sen. DeWine's current reelection campaign, confirmed that the money from Cook and Adams was returned because, at the time it was given, Adams was a judicial candidate and Cook was a sitting judge. "The campaign has operated out of an abundance of caution," Seitchik said, "and we thought it was the prudent thing to do."
Adams declined to comment. Cook's chambers faxed an unattributed one-sentence note that appeared to suggest that some of the donations in her name, as identified by public records, were made by her husband. Two written requests to Cook seeking further clarification were not answered.
The president selects most federal judges with significant input from U.S. senators of the same party. In Ohio, that process is "totally controlled by party politics," says Tom Hagel, a professor at the University of Dayton School of Law and a part-time trial judge. "If you don't have the blessing of the county and state party chairs you can stop right there," said Hagel, whose brother is Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. "Believe me, they've got to get approval all the way up the line." Hagel says campaign contributions could play into that process, as a demonstration of "how loyal and appreciative" a judicial candidate is. "That certainly has an appearance of impropriety," he said. "It gives the impression that the senators' decision-making process could be influenced by money."
In some cases from around the country, judicial candidates gave money directly to the president's campaign. Judge Thomas Ludington of Michigan gave Bush $1,000, after being nominated in September 2002. Judge P. Kevin Castel of New York gave Bush $2,000 after Bush nominated him in March 2003. Judge Paul Crotty of New York gave $1,000 to Bush in June 2003, the same month he met with Bush officials about the judgeship. Judge Mark Filip of Illinois, who had volunteered as a Republican election monitor in Florida during the disputed 2000 election, gave the president $2,000 after Bush nominated him in April 2003.
In a statement to Salon and CIR, White House spokesman Blair C. Jones said that "potential nominees" recommended to Bush are not based on "any consideration" of an individual's political contributions. He added, "We are not aware of any law or regulation that prohibits a federal judicial candidate or nominee from making political contributions."
In Pennsylvania, Sen. Arlen Specter has recommended dozens of judicial candidates to the president during his career. As a longtime member of the Judiciary Committee, and its chairman since 2005, he has helped oversee Bush's hundreds of appointments. Speaking by phone last week, Specter said political contributions are "not a factor" in who gets recommended in his home state or elsewhere. Citing the thousands of contributors and tens of millions of dollars raised in his 2004 campaign, Specter said that "it's just not possible to know everybody" who gives money.
However, in order to avoid any impression that the contributions carry influence, he said, "I think once an individual becomes a [judicial] prospect that that would be a cutoff point." In Pennsylvania, Specter said, that point would come when candidates apply for the job with a bipartisan selection committee set up by him and Rick Santorum, the state's other Republican senator. "I don't know of anybody who has made a contribution beyond that," Specter said.
In fact, the investigation revealed at least three judges in Pennsylvania who gave money to Specter, Santorum or President Bush after they were formally under consideration for the jobs.
The First Amendment protects the right of Americans to make political contributions. But there must be a balance, some ethics scholars and judges say, between that right and the responsibility of those seeking a judicial post to appear impartial. With the judiciary drawing increasing scrutiny and criticism in recent times, the American Bar Association is overhauling its judicial code of conduct to set new recommended ethical guidelines. The draft of the new code, to be voted on this February, would forbid political contributions by judicial candidates.
Political patronage certainly didn't start with the Bush administration. (There is an adage in legal circles that a federal judge is "a lawyer who knows a senator.") The investigation of Bush-appointed judges also turned up a Clinton-appointed district judge in California, Dean D. Pregerson, who, like Judge Cook of Ohio, made a political contribution in apparent violation of the Code of Conduct for U.S. Judges. While serving on the bench in 2002, Pregerson gave $1,000 to Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, according to federal records. (A spokesperson from Pregerson's chambers claimed that the contribution was made by his wife.)
After being alerted to the forthcoming Salon/CIR story, the Committee for Justice, a conservative advocacy group in Washington with ties to Karl Rove and Santorum, looked into a sampling of President Clinton's judicial picks, according to Sean Rushton, the group's executive director. CFJ found 10 judges confirmed to the bench under Clinton who had given political contributions of some kind after they were nominated, according to information provided by Rushton.
Indeed, money and personal connections have long played into the selection process in both parties, says political science professor Sheldon Goldman, author of "Picking Federal Judges." "Why pick someone who hasn't supported you over someone who has?" Goldman asks. "It's been tradition," he said. "You reward your friends."
The status quo, however, is disturbing to some observers. Ethics concerns have been thrown into sharp relief in Washington, with a string of corruption scandals staining the Republican Party in particular. And the future shape of the nation's courts may hinge on the midterm elections, depending on which party controls Congress afterward. There are currently 49 vacancies on the federal bench — and with a justice potentially retiring from the highest court, there is the possibility President Bush will nominate another Supreme Court Justice before leaving office.
Campaign finance is an area of particular concern, says Jeffrey M. Shaman, a judicial ethics expert at DePaul University College of Law. "We just have so many problems with contributions to judicial campaigns, and so many problems with campaign contributions to members of the legislature," he said. "If someone wants to be a judge, then they should, in their sound discretion and wisdom, voluntarily decide not to make these contributions anymore."
More than 50 Bush-appointed judges who made campaign contributions around the time of their nominations were contacted with written requests for comment, as were some other judges who gave money prior to their appointments. While many did not respond, some responded by phone or in written statements.
Boyko, the Ohio district judge who gave money to Voinovich after Bush had nominated Boyko, said in a statement that he had given the money at a Republican fundraising event attended by Bush. "I have always expressed thanks for Senator Voinovich's trust in me and have always publicly supported him. If I could ethically donate today, I would. And, because of a long standing mutual respect with Senator Voinovich, I saw no ethical improprieties donating after the recommendation." Boyko added: "If you believe for a minute that $240, $2,000 or $25,000 'buys' a federal judgeship, as you clearly intimate … your naivete astounds me. Any such insinuations are a blatant insult to both Senators, denigrating their integrity and character. No one 'buys' either Senator DeWine or Senator Voinovich — period."
Sen. Voinovich's press secretary, Garrette Silverman, said that participation in the political process is not a consideration. "To think that contributions would even enter the equation is absurd when we're taking about evaluating candidates for federal judgeships," she said.
Judge Lavenski R. Smith — who contributed money to Republican Sen. Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas after Hutchinson had recommended him to Bush for a judgeship, and after Smith had publicly acknowledged that he was undergoing an FBI background check for a potential nomination — said in a written statement, "The proximity of the timing between my donations and my nomination was largely coincidental." The $1,000 donation to Hutchinson in 2001, apparently Smith's first federal contribution since at least 1990, came three weeks before Bush announced his nomination.
Smith, who was confirmed to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in July 2002, also said, "Until nominated, potential nominees should retain their full first amendment rights to participate politically as ordinary citizens."
A number of Bush-appointed judges from around the country, however, said they consider political contributions by judicial candidates to be inappropriate.
"My thoughts are that it would probably be inappropriate for a lawyer who is a candidate for a federal judgeship to make a significant campaign contribution to a person having influence over the selection process, especially if the candidate had no prior history of making such contributions," wrote Judge Timothy C. Batten Sr., of Georgia, who was confirmed to the bench in March 2006. Even those who have a history of giving campaign money, Batten continued, "should realize that public disclosure of the contributions might … raise unpleasant questions as to the purpose of the contributions."
Judge Roger W. Titus of Maryland, confirmed in November 2003, wrote: "From a personal standpoint, I do not believe that political contributions should be made to an appointing authority while under active consideration."
Judge Patrick J. Schiltz of Minnesota, confirmed in April 2006, wrote: "I knew that federal judges were forbidden from making political contributions, and I thought that, as someone recommended or nominated for a federal judgeship, I should follow the same practice."
It's not always senators who make recommendations to the president for judgeships, and who receive political money that could look bad in the eyes of the public. In New York, because both senators are Democrats, Republican Gov. George Pataki has had an influential role under Bush in selecting nominees for the federal courts. Judge Richard J. Holwell, who was a law school classmate and former lawyer of Pataki's, met with the governor's judicial screening panel in March 2001 and was told he would be recommended for a judgeship. The next month, Holwell gave Pataki $10,000.
In Pennsylvania, as in Ohio, there are numerous examples of Bush appointees giving money to influential politicians as they were headed for the bench.
In March 2001, Judge Thomas M. Hardiman interviewed with a selection committee set up by Specter and Santorum for recommending judicial candidates to Bush. Between then and April 2003, when Bush nominated Hardiman for a district court seat, Hardiman contributed a total of $2,400 to Specter, $2,000 to Santorum and his political action committee, and gave thousands of dollars to other Republicans. Hardiman kept sending some of those donations even as he was interviewing with the White House, filling out forms for the Justice Department and undergoing his FBI background check. Hardiman was confirmed by the Senate in October 2003. This fall, he was nominated by Bush to be elevated to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — so he'll go before the Judiciary Committee, with Specter now in charge, again.
Specter dismissed the importance of the money he received from Hardiman. "He was a protégé of Santorum, not mine," Specter said. He added that if he had known Hardiman was donating while under consideration for the judgeship, "I would have told him not to do it."
As a Judiciary Committee member, Specter also helped oversee the confirmation of Judge Gene Pratter. Pratter gave Specter $1,500 between February and March 2003, and interviewed with the Pennsylvania selection committee in "spring" 2003, according to her Senate questionnaire. Pratter then interviewed with White House counsel Alberto Gonzalez in July and September 2003 — and in September she contributed $2,000 to Bush.
The records of other federal judges appointed by Bush in Pennsylvania reveal a similar pattern. Judge John E. Jones of Pennsylvania gave $1,000 to Santorum after he was recommended by the senators' committee. Judge Michael Baylson, nominated and confirmed in 2002 after serving for decades as legal counsel and then treasurer for Specter's campaigns and committees, gave $2,000 to Specter after it was reported in the press that Baylson was a likely candidate for the judgeship.
"If I had known about it," said Specter, "I would have returned their contributions. I don't want anybody to think that it's relevant." He added, "You ought to look at all the others who were nominees who didn't make contributions. I don't think anybody would believe that those contributions would influence a decision on making anyone a judge."
But ensuring that the public won't see the money as tainting the selection of judges may not be so simple. "All campaign contributions are in some sense to buy influence," said William Hodes, a professor emeritus of law at Indiana University who helped draft the proposed ABA code. "Once you cross into the world of judging or being a candidate for judge you take on a new responsibility to begin living by the rules of your new job," said Hodes, who runs a legal ethics consulting practice. "Since sitting federal judges can't donate even a dime anyway, my guess is that it would be very comfortable for the federal system to say once you have had direct talks with the senator with an eye toward [a judgeship], or if the White House has contacted you, then you're a candidate and you have to back off."
Even some Bush judges who gave money as they were bound for the bench acknowledge the ethical concerns that it can raise.
"I was recommended [to the president] around August 2001," said Judge Jones of Pennsylvania. "Is that the point that I should have stopped making contributions? Maybe I should have." He added, "If you know you're being recommended by the screening panel, probably in retrospect it's better to say, 'That's it,' and not make any contributions after that. But that's the benefit of hindsight."