The report that some federal appellate judges have ruled on cases involving companies in which they own stock ["Judges Ruled on Firms in Their Portfolios," front page, Sept. 13] overlooked a far more serious problem: state and local judges who receive substantial campaign contributions from trial lawyers.

In the past decade, attorneys who represent plaintiffs have given more than $100 million to election campaigns across the country. From 1990 through 1994, plaintiffs' lawyers, their law firms and related PACs contributed more than $27 million to state candidates in California, Alabama and Texas alone -- jurisdictions all noted for big punitive awards.

This is no abstract issue. As a paper by the American Judicature Society put it: "An elected judge can carry to the bench a load of obligations to those who helped him or her get there. . . . [H]ow would you like it if your opponent in a lawsuit were represented by someone who gave $500 to help the judge get elected?"

Unfortunately, the actual numbers are much higher. In Alabama, for example, where punitive damage awards rose from $22 million in 1993 to $171 million in 1996, about $5 million was spent in 1996 on one state Supreme Court campaign. In Texas, of $9.2 million in campaign contributions to seven Supreme Court justices who were elected in 1994 and 1996, 40 percent came from parties and lawyers with cases before the court or contributors closely linked to those parties. And in California, where a Los Angeles jury returned a record $4.9 billion punitive verdict in July against General Motors, trial lawyers contributed a record $10.3 million to political parties and candidates (including judges) during the 1997-98 election cycle.

Even the American Bar Association, hardly a leader in legal reform, recently approved an amendment to its Model Code of Judicial Conduct that would impose contribution limits and disclosure requirements on elected judges. It also would require judges to disqualify themselves from hearing cases in which litigants or their attorneys had contributed campaign funds above a certain limit. But the ABA leaves the details up to local jurisdictions, creating ample opportunities for loopholes.

Federal judges should not benefit financially from their own rulings -- though, as a practical matter, stock prices rarely are affected by court decisions. But local judges, who depend on campaign contributions to retain their jobs, are far more likely to be influenced by such considerations -- all the more reason to prevent trial lawyers from buying justice.



The writer, a former journalist, is president and CEO of Bork & Associates, a communications firm specializing in litigation issues.