WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) - The firm of heavyweight Alabama plaintiffs attorney Jere Beasley gave more than $600,000 to a candidate for the state Supreme Court in 2008 without appearing on a list of her contributors, a recent report shows.
The six partners at Beasley's firm wrote a total of 52 checks worth a combined $606,000, using what three elections groups called "an arcane maze" of political action committees to funnel the money to Democrat Deborah Bell Paseur.
It's just one of the examples used by the Justice at Stake Campaign, the National Institute on Money in State Politics and the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University of Law in their report, released Monday, to show how spending on judicial elections has changed.
Spending on state supreme court elections more than doubled from $83.3 million from 1990-1999 to $206.9 million from 2000-2009.
The checks from the Beasley firm's partners were written to PACs controlled by two individuals, who moved the money to the state Democratic Party. Paseur then received the contributions from the party, the report says.
Paseur lost to Greg Shaw, helping conservatives keep their stronghold on the court.
"While Paseur was covertly receiving more than $600,000 from one law firm, she publicly accused her Republican opponent of ethical conflicts, saying he was beholden to the energy industry," the report says.
"In campaign ads, Paseur boasted that she 'can't be bought.'"
Beasley even issued a press release putting his support behind Paseur, who is running for the state Court of Civil Appeals this year.
Alabama wasn't alone in producing costly judicial elections that year, though. The report says more than $10 million was spent in Pennsylvania, $8.5 million was spent in Wisconsin and more than $5 million was spent in Texas and Alabama.
In the 17 contested supreme court elections in 2007-08, the candidate who raised the most money won 11 times.
The report also mentions the election of West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin in 2004 to show how a few big spenders can dwarf a lot of smaller ones.
During 29 elections in the 10 costliest states, the top five spenders in each of elections invested an average of $473,000, while the remaining 116,000 contributors averaged $850 each, the report says.
Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship spent more than $3 million campaigning for Benjamin, who was then forced to recuse himself from a $50 million case against Massey in 2009 by the U.S. Supreme Court. Still, Massey won its appeal of the verdict.
The report says judicial elections have pitted business groups against plaintiffs attorneys. One side features the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, while the other features wealthy plaintiffs lawyers, the report says.
The U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform owns Legal Newsline.
"The next decade will be a perilous time for fair courts," said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of the Justice at Stake Campaign.
"For more than two centuries, Americans have counted on judges to ignore political pressure. But the flood of special-interest money is changing that. Without reforms, there is a real risk of irreversible damage to public confidence in our courts."
The full report can be viewed here.
From Legal Newsline: Reach John O'Brien by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.