A report titled “Bankrolling the Bench: The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2013-14” was posted online today, and it already has captured news media attention from Mother Jones magazine.
The latest in a series of “New Politics” reports since 2000 documents an election cycle that saw special-interest groups account for a record-high 29 percent of total spending in judicial races, 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.
Mother Jones highlighted the report’s central findings in an article that was headlined, “Huge Sums Are Pouring Into Judicial Elections, But That Would Never Affect the Courts, Right? A new report shows that the flood of independent spending in judicial races across the country continues to head skyward.”
With its eye on longterm trends, the magazine said, “Supreme Court justices in 38 states must face voters to either earn their seats or keep them. But over the last few years, what were once sleepy, local affairs have grown into multimillion-dollar races that have increasingly drawn the attention of special-interest groups from all over the country.”
“The hard numbers make it clear: when judges have to run for election, there is a risk that the concerns of ordinary people will take a back seat to the special interests and politicians who are trying to reshape courts to fit their agendas,” said Scott Greytak, JAS Policy Counsel and Research Analyst and lead author of the report, in a news release about the study.
“The good news is that we can fix this,” Greytak added. “We can work toward real reforms like merit selection, to help get money and politics out of the process, so judges can focus on their real work instead of raising money and fending off political attacks, and so all of us can have confidence that our courts are fair and impartial.”
“There’s been a real shift in norms…among judges and judicial candidates in terms of what they’re willing to do and say in their campaigns,” Alicia Bannon, senior counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, and the report’s co-author, told Mother Jones. “And I think it has troubling implications for the public’s confidence in the fairness of our courts. In the end, I don’t think the public wants our judges to be politicians in robes, but increasingly that’s what we’re seeing as these campaigns continue to be dominated by special-interest money and are bearing all the hallmarks of an ordinary political contest.”
According to Mother Jones, the report says that “state Supreme Court candidates spent more than $34 million on races in the 2013-14 election cycle. That total was slightly less than the amount spent in 2011 and 2012. One reason is that there were a large number of unopposed candidates. Even so, political parties and outside special interests poured $13.8 million into the races. That figure is 40 percent of the total amount of money spent during that cycle, $13.8 million. It’s the first time such a huge percentage of spending came from these outside groups during a non-presidential election cycle.” The amount of outside spending by special-interest groups alone was $10.1 million.
The report finds that multi-million dollar judicial races, once unheard of, are now common across the nation. So-called “social welfare” nonprofit groups and other outside groups are increasingly spending on court races, the report notes, spurred in part by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010.
The 2013-2014 election cycle also saw a notable development in a highly public initiative by a national group, the Republican State Leadership Committee, which spent nearly $3.4 million across judicial races in five states, according to the report.
The New Politics of Judicial Elections reports are produced biennially. They have monitored election spending and other threats to the impartiality of state courts since 2000. The Brennan Center and the National Institute on Money in State Politics are JAS partner organizations.