Tiny judge packs firey wallop with quot;hell-fire and brimstonequot; message

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 8, 2000

Around town this week I had the opportunity to listen to Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Pam Baschab, an Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice candidate, speak to the Greenville Rotary Club. At first I thought I was going to listen to yet another drab campaign speech, considering we are entering into the height of the political season, but what the Rotarians in the room heard last Thursday was far from what could be considered "ordinary" campaign rhetoric.

Baschab is fed up, she says, with the special interest high finance that has become the norm in the Alabama Supreme Court election process, and has taken a grass-roots approach to getting her message to the people of Alabama by traveling from town to town and county to county in the family Winnebago and preaching her gospel to anyone who will listen.

Speaking will all the "hell-fire and brimstone" of the most seasoned county evangelist, Baschab held the Greenville Rotarians spellbound with the details of her message: The influx of special interest money into the election process for Alabama's Supreme Court is giving the appearance that the court is being bought, and that appearance of impropriety is eating away at the very core of popular government in our state and in our nation.

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Baschab pulls no punches in her contempt for what she calls "a cancer on the state's judicial system," and she presents some eye-opening statistics to prove her point.

According to figures she presented to the Rotarians, spending during the election process for Alabama's high court judges has increased dramatically over the past decade.

In 1992, she says, more that $1,650,000 was spent to elect judges to two available seats on the bench.

Two years later more than $6,500,000 was spent to fill four empty seats on the same bench.

In 1996, more than $4,500,000 was spent to fill a solitary vacancy, while in 1998 a little more than $7 million was spent to fill three available seats on the Alabama Supreme Court.

Baschab says that according to this years projections, the five empty seats will cost more than $20 million to fill. Baschab seems to be the only candidate who is asking the question "how much is enough?"

The problem is that Alabama is one of only eight states in the nation that actually elects its high court judges. And of those eight states, Alabama stands out as the one that spends the most money to elect its supreme court judges.

Supreme Court justices at the federal level, and in most other states, are appointed for one simple reason: in our system of government, the judicial branch is to remain independent of the legislative and executive branches of government to ensure that proper checks and balances are maintained.

But, by bringing high court judges up for election in Alabama on a bi-partisan ticket, it forces these candidates to become politicians first, judges second, and makes it seem that certain special interest groups are fighting, with money as a weapon, for control of the Alabama Supreme Court.

Where does all the money come from? Baschab's simple answer is

that it comes from trial lawyers and business interests that seek "favorable" treatment from the courts. Where does all the money go? Another simple answer: television ads. It seems a politician can't get elected without making his or her face known all over the state.

The question Baschab presents is also simple and to the point: "Do these special interest groups really deserve "favorable" treatment just because they contributed to a campaign?"

Of course the answer is no. Everyone deserves justice, and in the eyes of the court all people are equal, so why do special interest groups feel the need to contribute millions to the campaigns of judges? If the judges aren't being bought, then what is the point?

Baschab's questioning of this problem has not won her any popularity contests among the judges in the state. While almost all will openly agree with her views publicly, she says she has been accused of trying to make everyone else look bad.

"Does the doctor make you look bad when he diagnosis you with cancer?" she will ask in response to the accusations. And to Baschab, the money involved is nothing more than a disease our state is facing; it is a disease she says must be cured.

Baschab has taken a pledge to cap her own spending during the coming election at $120,000. And, while she may find it hard to compete against her opponents who are spending exponentially more trying to win votes, Baschab's grass-roots approach and refreshing message might just be what it takes to prove her point. She says she has yet to receive confirmation of any other candidate also willing to take this pledge, but she says they all support her in her efforts. Maybe they think her limited spending will keep her from getting elected and reduce the competition.

Baschab says she wants to be a judge, not a politician, and when faced with millions of dollars in donations just for the asking it shows strength of character on her part for resisting the temptation.

Politics in our state and nation has gotten out of control. Politicians spend more and more each year on television ads, and voters are believing less and less of what they say.

Baschab's honesty has won her at least one vote here in Butler County, and as an official republican candidate for Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court she will need all the support she can muster if she is going to make it past the primary.