Report highlights jumps in state court race spending

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Legal Newsline) --In the first election cycle since the Citizens United decision, political parties and special interest groups spent more than $24 million on advertising for2011-2012 state court races, according to a report released Thursday.

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, Justice at Stake and the National Institute on Money in State Politics released their report, "The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2011-12: How New Waves of Special Interest Spending Raised the Stakes for Fair Courts" on Thursday.

"An explosion of independent spending helped fuel the costliest election cycle for TV spending in judicial election history and posed grave new threats to fair and impartial justice in America," according to the groups behind the report. "Citizens United v. FEC, 2010's blockbuster Supreme Court decision that unleashed unlimited independent spending on elections, cast a long shadow on the 2011-12 judicial election cycle.

"Surging independent spending means less transparency as to who is seeking to influence court outcomes, leads to nasty and misleading attack ads, and contributes to a perception that justice is for sale."

Some of the notable figures from the study include:

* Non-candidate groups -- such as political parties -- contributed 43 percent of all funds spent on state high court elections. That's nearly double the 22 percent in the last presidential election cycle.

* About 35 percent of all money spent on state high court races came from just 10 special interest groups and political parties. That is compared to 21 percent in 2007-08.

* A record $33.7 million was spent on Supreme Court campaign TV ads, far exceeding the old record of $26.6 million from 2007-08.

"Our courts are supposed to be a safe place for impartial justice, but campaign cash and political pressure are threatening to tip the scales," said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake. "It's the biggest threat to democracy that nobody's heard of. If Americans start thinking of judges as politicians in robes, our democracy is in trouble."

"Special-interest spending in judicial elections has turned into an arms race," said Alicia Bannon, counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice and lead author of the report. "The American people need to know that judges are deciding cases based on the law, not on who spent the most money to support their campaign."

The report also focuses on legislative offenses against merit-based systems for judge selection, including anti-retention campaigns in Florida and Iowa.

The report also warns of future legislative attacks on reforms.

"Perhaps most disturbing of all ... is that while independent spending on state court races ballooned in 2011-12, it still has room to grow," the report states. "Future years may see an even greater expansion in independent spending by interest groups and parties in judicial elections."

The New Politics of Judicial Elections report is produced biennially. It has monitored election spending and other threats to the impartiality of state courts since 2000.

Justice at Stake is a nonpartisan campaign working to keep America's courts fair and impartial. The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law is a nonpartisan law and policy institute that seeks to improve our systems of democracy and justice. The National Institute on Money in State Politics collects, publishes, and analyzes data on campaign money in state elections.


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