It doesn’t take much to imagine that campaign cash is buying influence in the courtroom
In an attempt to find a more favorable prosecutor, the corporation funnels $1 million to the prosecutor’s political opponent through a series of vaguely named political action committees (PACs) managed by a former felon.
Why not make it even more interesting? What if the transfers and the amount of money were legal under state law and the manager received a pardon a few months after his conviction?
While the hypothetical might seem like the latest legal fiction thriller, it happens to be reality in Alabama politics. The state prosecutor is none other than Attorney General Luther Strange, the business is the Poarch Band of Creek Indians that operates casinos in Alabama, and the A, T, and Speed PACs the tribe funds are managed by former state Sen. John Teague.
Saying that gambling is a controversial issue in Alabama is an understatement, but the fact that the litigation involves gambling does not change the hypothetical situation above.
Nobody believes that the Poarch Creek money is funding Strange’s opponent for any reason other than their legal battles. Even if the Poarch Band of Creek Indians and Teague are operating within the law, the scenario still seems off. In Alabama, where we have elected judges and prosecutors, should we permit litigants to make political contributions in support or opposition to officials within the legal system when they have pending litigation involving them?
Contributing to public officials in the legal system to generally shape the legal climate is common in Alabama. For example, trial lawyers and the business community have waged political war for decades in an effort to influence Alabama’s legal system. Political fights over general legal philosophy are a different matter altogether than using campaign cash in response to unfavorable legal proceedings.
Preventing political contributions in a direct conflict situation is already recognized under Alabama law. Utilities regulated by the Public Service Commission (PSC) are prohibited from making political contributions to candidates for the commission.
If anything, elected state prosecutors and judges have more discretion and individual autonomy over decisions impacting litigants than PSC members have over regulated entities. There are some general ethics rules for attorneys and recusal issues for judges, but none of them squarely take the issue head on.
The very presence of elected public officials in the legal system carries with it politics, campaigns and financial contributions. The question for Alabamians is whether we want to make legal changes that keep those campaign conflicts out of the courtroom.