Spending by Special-Interest Groups in Judicial Elections Hits Record High

Monday, November 02, 2015

It has become easier than ever to buy a judge. The only trick is it has to be done during an election.


A report (pdf) from the Brennan Center for Justice shows that multimillion-dollar judicial elections are becoming commonplace. “Over the last decade and a half, state Supreme Court elections have been transformed into politicized and costly contests, dominated by special interests seeking to shape courts to their liking,” stated the report. “The most recent 2013-14 cycle was no different, as the pressure of big money—increasingly reflected in outside spending by special-interest groups—threatened the promise of equal justice for all.”


Nowhere has this become more evident than in Wisconsin. Millions of dollars were spent on a judicial election in 2011 to fill a seat on the state’s supreme court. The spending produced a court that tilted conservative, as did the state’s Republican governor, Scott Walker, and its legislature. The result was court approval of Walker’s union-busting proposal that had drawn protesters to the state’s Capitol for weeks. Showing just how well their backers’ money was spent, the court also earlier this year halted an investigation into Walker’s conduct during his 2012 recall election, ordering prosecutors to destroy all evidence they had collected.


In the 2013-14 election cycle, candidates for 19 states’ highest courts received $34.5 million in contributions. About a third, $10.1 million, came from interest groups, including political action committees and social welfare organizations, according to the report. Twenty-one of the 23 seats up for grabs were won by the candidate on whose behalf the most money was spent.


“The result is heightened secrecy and less accountability,” according to the report. “Outside spenders frequently take advantage of weak disclosure laws to shield their donors from public scrutiny. And when organizations with benign-sounding names—whose donors and connections to candidates are unknown to the public—spend substantial sums to influence elections, voters do not know which messages to trust or how—or if—to hold elected judges accountable for mudslinging ads or conflicts of interest.”


The biggest individual donors are either lawyers or lobbyists, according to the Brennan Center, and those are the ones who are most likely to have a stake in court cases and proceedings.


Of course, the candidates know who supported them. And recusal for conflict-of-interest reasons is often at the option of individual judges, who are unlikely to pass up the chance to help a benefactor.

-Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

Special Interests Tighten Grip on Judicial Elections (by Jack Bouboushian, Courthouse News Service)

The New Politics of Judicial Elections (by Scott Greytak, Alicia Bannon & Allyse Falce, Linda Casey and Laurie Kinney; Brennan Center for Justice, National Institute on Money in State Politics, and Justice at Stake)

More Evidence that TV Ads in Judicial Elections Lead to Less Sympathy for Defendants back in the Courtroom (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Increased Spending on Judicial Elections Leads to Increase in Guilty Verdicts (by Matt Bewig, AllGov)


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