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Special interest money is targeting state judicial elections, study finds

Television attacks ads funded by special interests add pressure on judges to be tough on crime, report says

Special interest groups are spending more than ever to sway elections of high-level state judges, which may pose a threat to the integrity of the U.S. court system, a new report finds.

The report, by the Brennan Center for Justice and two other groups, found that special interest groups accounted for nearly a third — 29 percent — of total spending in the most recent election cycle for state supreme court judges. The special interests range from conservative organizations advocating small government to plaintiffs' lawyers in business-liability cases. 

The money going into judicial races appears to make a difference: In the 23 states that had contested elections in 2013-14 election cycle, 90 percent were won by the candidate with the most funding.

In North Carolina, a group called Justice for All NC aired an attack ad on one judge 1,940 times, at an estimated cost of $689,530.

“Interest groups are pouring money into these races trying to influence who sits on these courts, and ultimately the decisions that courts are making,” said Alicia Bannon, senior counsel at the Brennan Center and one of the authors of the study. “This spending really goes to the basic integrity of our court system.”

Spending in state judicial elections has been rising steadily over the past two decades. A study published in 2010 found that campaign spending for state judicial elections had more than doubled from $83.3 million in the 1990s to $206.9 million in the decade from 2000 through 2009.

States like Michigan, Illinois, Ohio and Wisconsin are some of the biggest spenders on state judicial races.

North Carolina in 2014 eliminated public financing for judicial races, then held its first election in a decade that had no public funding. “Not surprisingly, you saw a huge surge in fundraising and record levels of spending in that state,” said Bannon.

Although overall spending in judicial races has been rising for years, the amount of money used for televised attack ads in these elections soared after the Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010, according to a 2014 study, called “Skewed Justice," by the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy.

The ads disproportionately focus on whether a judge is “tough on crime.” The study also found that the more ads that air during a state’s supreme court elections, the less likely that state’s justices are to rule in favor of criminal defendants.

Spending in judicial campaigns “may be putting pressure on judges to effectively be tough on crime," Bannon said. "They may be worried that otherwise they could be targeted in a future campaign."

Besides the Brennan Center, the other organizations that authored the new study are Justice at Stake and the National Institute on Money in State Politics. 


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