Billionaire George Soros spends tens of millions each year supporting a range of liberal social and political causes, from drug legalization to immigration reform to gay marriage to abolishing the death penalty.
But a less well-known Soros priority -- replacing elections for judges with selection-by-committee -- now has critics accusing him of trying to stack the courts.
Most non-federal judges around the country are selected by voters in elections. But some states use a process called “merit selection” in which a committee – often made up of lawyers – appoints judges to the bench instead.
Soros has spent several million dollars in the past decade in an attempt to get more states to scrap elections and adopt the merit method. Supporters say it would allow judges to focus on interpreting the law rather than on raising campaign funds and winning elections.
“Merit selection would end the money race and get judges out of the fundraising business,” Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts -- a group that has received money from Soros’ Open Society Institute -- told FoxNews.com.
But critics say that if judges are picked by committee -- often, a committee of lawyers -- that will give left-wing judges the upper hand.
“The left can’t get their agenda through the legislatures anymore … so they think they can get their agenda through by taking over the courts,” attorney Colleen Pero, author of a new report titled "Hijacking Justice," told FoxNews.com.
Pero’s report found that Soros, through his Open Society Institute fund, has given $45 million over the last decade to “a campaign to reshape the judiciary.” But that number is hotly contested by Justice at Stake, the group that got the most Soros money.
“It’s a horrendously bogus distortion of numbers,” Charlie Hall, a spokesman for Justice at Stake, told FoxNews.com. Hall said the $45 million figure included groups that dealt with legal issues but had no position on merit selection. He added that he could only identify $2 million from Soros that went to groups that actively support replacing elections with “merit selection.”
In an analysis of the Open Society Institute's tax returns from the last ten years, FoxNews.com found more than $5 million was explicitly earmarked for projects about either "merit selection" or "judicial selection."
For example, OSI reported giving $90,000 to Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts in 2007 to "expand and grow a coalition in support of merit selection." It also reported giving $50,000 to Justice at Stake in 2006 to support "public education regarding merit selection."
OSI gave another $7 million-plus to Justice at Stake, or to partner organizations with specific directions to support JAS's activities.
Some recipients of Soros' money were eager to defend “merit selection,” and said they only wished Soros would give more money to the cause. "We are very grateful for their support of our efforts," Marks said. Her group received more than $500,000 over the last decade, but has not received money from OSI since 2008.
Elections, she added, discourage competent lawyers from becoming judges just because they aren’t good politicians. “They don't put their name in for nominations because they think they don't have the political connections or access to dollars.”
And judges, she said, should be kept apart from political forces. “Judges should resolve disputes based on evidence -- they're not supposed to be responsive to public pressure.”
But Pero pointed to a study by prominent law professors that found elected judges were, if anything, more independent and took on larger workloads than judges appointed by committee.
"We began this project with the assumption that the data would demonstrate that appointed judges are better than elected judges," the authors note, adding that after looking at their result: "It may be that elected judges are, indeed, superior to appointed judges."
And, Pero says, “merit selection” is inherently undemocratic.
"It would be a handful lawyers who would select judges… with elections, the people actually have a say."
Marks said it is wrong to call the merit selection un-democratic.
"Merit selection requires a change in the Constitution, so a bill must... go before the public. So when people say, ‘oh, you're changing the way we vote’ -- yes, but only if the people want to change the way we vote."