TERRE HAUTE — It’s a nickname not heard since his fraternity days in Kappa Sigma while attending Indiana University, and needless to say, it brought a chuckle to James Bopp Jr. when he saw the cover of the November issue of the ABA Journal.
The cover reads: “The BIG BOPPER, Exploding the canons of judicial ethics.”
“I didn’t think there was anybody still alive that still remembered that nickname,” Bopp said Monday in a telephone interview. “I was truly honored that the work that I have done, and other people in my law firm have done with me, would be profiled and be the featured cover article. It was very humbling.”
Bopp, 58, was preparing to meet with Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney about the Republican governor’s potential presidential bid. “I am just meeting with him to explore his views and I am considering supporting him, but I have not made a decision yet.”
Bopp, a Terre Haute attorney, is a national committeeman from Indiana for the Republican National Committee. He has served as general counsel for the National Right to Life since 1978.
He also operates the James Madison Center for Free Speech, with a mission statement to “support litigation and public education activities in order to defend the rights of political expression and association by citizens and citizen groups as guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”
Bopp served as legal counsel for Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniel’s election campaign and is president of the National Legal Center for the Medically Dependent and Disabled Inc. He also serves as special counsel for Colorado-based Focus on the Family.
The ABA stands for the American Bar Association. The ABA Journal goes out to members of the ABA, which has 413,000 members providing law school accreditation, continuing legal education, information about the law and programs to assist lawyers and judges in their work.
“The ABA Journal, while financially supported by the ABA, is editorially independent of the ABA. We report about legal issues, legal controversies all the time,” said Edward A. Adams, editor and publisher of the ABA Journal.
“We don’t feature or not feature people depending on what their positions are; we feature or not feature people depending on whether or not we feel they are newsworthy and interesting. We certainly thought Mr. Bopp was all of that,” Adams said.
“Bopp has clearly had a big impact in this area of judicial ethics, particularly in terms of the campaign ethics for judges. We felt that he has made a great deal of news and a description of that would be of considerable interest to our readers who might not otherwise have heard of him,” Adams said.
Bopp is not a member of the ABA. In fact, many of the positions of that organization have come under question in lawsuits filed by Bopp.
Victory before the U.S. Supreme Court
Bopp’s biggest judicial win came in 2002 before the U.S. Supreme Court in the case Republican Party of Minnesota v. White. The 5-4 ruling allowed voters to know the views of judicial candidates.
The Supreme Court said a Minnesota judicial conduct rule violated the 1st Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech. The rule, the court said, defeated the purpose of electing judges.
It was the first case Bopp argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. He now has argued four cases before the Supreme Court, winning three of them.
Since 2002, Bopp has handled nearly a dozen other cases in several states representing advocacy groups or judicial candidates, striking down an additional 12 legal restrictions on judicial candidates, such as restrictions that prohibited them from soliciting contributions for their campaign or concerning their political party affiliation.
“Before 2002, the ABA and state supreme courts in almost all the states believed that judicial elections were so different that you could essentially prohibit judicial campaigns on the theory that the 1st Amendment didn’t apply to judicial elections, and the Supreme Court rejected that and the 1st Amendment does apply,” Bopp said.
“There are literally pages, dozens of speech restrictions in states, which have been very slow, very resistant to changing and bringing their laws into compliance with the Supreme Court mandate. When the voter is asked to choose whether or not a judicial candidate can serve in office, then the voter has a legitimate interest in knowing what the general views of the judicial candidates are.
“Those views, to a certain extent, will affect the judge in making their decision and the people want judges that will do their job properly and when they have discretion, it will reflect the people’s values,” Bopp said.
As an example, Bopp points to the 1986 retention-election loss of California Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Bird, who during her tenure reversed 59 of 64 death-penalty sentences. Bird voted to overturn all the cases.
“The people figured out that she was no longer following the law, but imposing her own personal views, contrary to the law. People want to know if a judge will follow the law or impose their own personal views,” Bopp said.
Conduct rules keep voters in dark
Bopp said many incumbent judges like speech restrictions since they discourage potential judicial candidates from mounting election campaigns. Bopp said speech restriction “immunizes, protects [judges] from people knowing what they are doing in office, when what they are doing is not following the rule of law.”
Judicial laws in Indiana also have been challenged by Bopp.
Federal District Court Judge Allen Sharp in November ruled against the state’s code of judicial conduct prohibiting state court judicial candidates from responding to a questionnaire asking their views on legal and political issues. The court ruled that violated the 1st Amendment because these provisions prohibited candidates from simply announcing their views on issues.
Indiana Right to Life had sent a questionnaire to candidates for judicial office in the November 2004 election, requesting that they state their views on policies and court decisions related to such matters as assisted suicide and abortion.
Terre Haute Attorney Louis Britton, a member of the ABA, read the article about Bopp, then left his copy of the magazine with a note for Bopp at his downtown office.
“It is always a surprise, for me, when I see somebody I know on a national magazine, after all, I don’t know anybody important,” Britton said, while laughing slightly. “It was a very interesting article. As I read it, there was nothing making light of him or holding him to ridicule. The Bar Association tends to be extremely liberal. I thought the article was reasonably well-balanced.
“I thought it was neat and he should get a pat on the back for that,” Britton said.
Britton said “a number of years ago the Bar Association announced that it was taking a pro-abortion stance. I called Jim to talk with him about what he thought I should do about continued membership in the Bar Association. I decided to keep the membership, but it is ironic that I called him to talk about that and now he ends up on the cover.”
Howard Greninger can be reached at (812) 231-4204 or email@example.com.