A report on “The New Politics of Judicial Elections, 2009-2010” was posted online today, and it already has grabbed news media attention in The Washington Post.
The latest in a series of “New Politics” reports since 2000 documents an election cycle that poses some of the gravest threats yet to fair and impartial justice in America, according to the three legal reform groups that co-authored the report. The co-authors are Justice at Stake, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
The Post article highlighted the report’s finding that independent expenditures by special interest groups accounted for nearly 30 percent of the money spent on state judicial elections during the two-year period, far higher than four years earlier. “The authors argue that the pattern is a harbinger of the spending to come across the board next year” in the 2012 elections, the Post said.
Just 10 organizations dominated all judicial election spending, paying out a combined $15 million, the article said in reviewing the “New Politics” report’s findings.
“Too many judges owe their jobs to campaign money hidden from public view,” Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake, said in a statement. “Americans expect courts to be fair and impartial. They don’t want campaign cash to influence courtroom decisions.”
“The rise in spending by non-candidate groups means that many judicial candidates have become bystanders in their own campaigns, watching the action from the sidelines,” said Adam Skaggs, senior counsel of the Brennan Center. “We expect judges to be impartial and fair. Now with campaign laws weakening, citizens understandably worry that justice is for sale.”
According to the Post article, the “New Politics” study “found that $38.4 million was spent on state high court elections in 2010. About 30 percent of that, or $11.5 million, came from groups unconnected to candidates.”
The “New Politics” report also shows that judicial and legislative elections in 2010 sparked an unprecedented post-election attack on state courts. And it shows that spending spiked nationally on judicial retention (up-or-down) elections, which typically had been extremely resistant to special-interest encroachment before. In Iowa, three state Supreme Court justices were swept out of office over a controversial decision on same-sex marriage.
“The story of the 2009-2010 elections,” the report warns, “and their aftermath in state legislatures in 2011, reveals a coalescing national campaign that seeks to intimidate America’s state judges into becoming accountable to money and ideologies instead of the constitution and the law.”
Meanwhile, a new poll released today, commissioned by Justice at Stake, underscored widespread public concern that special-interest money may be tilting justice in courthouses where judges are elected.
In a poll of 1,000 voters, 83 percent said they believe campaign donations have a “great deal” or “some” influence on a judge’s decisions; 93 percent said they believe judges should not hear cases involving major financial supporters; and 84 percent said they believe all contributions to a judicial candidate should be “quickly disclosed and posted to a web site.”
To see previous New Politics reports, including a 2000-2009 decade overview published in 2010, click here. The Brennan Center for Justice and National Institute on Money in State Politics are JAS partner groups.