Millions spent on retention elections, report shows

By Jessica M. Karmasek | Oct 27, 2011


WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) - A campaign to unseat Illinois Supreme Court Justice Thomas Kilbride triggered the nation's costliest retention election in 25 years, according to a national report released Thursday.

The report, entitled "The New Politics of Judicial Elections: 2009-2010," was written by the Justice at Stake Campaign, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

"Illinois' 2010 retention election showed that no state is safe from special interest attempts to hijack the courts," Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake, said in a statement.

"Previously, this kind of runaway spending was only seen in partisan elections for judges. More than ever, reforms are needed to keep campaign cash out of the courtroom."

Last year's Illinois Supreme Court election cost almost $3.5 million, with Kilbride raising $2.8 million and national business groups -- angered by the justice's vote to help strike down a ceiling on certain medical malpractice awards -- financing an unsuccessful $688,000 challenge.

Kilbride retained his seat on the Court with 65 percent of the vote.

Typically, retention elections are low-money campaigns. Only the incumbent appears on the ballot and the public votes "yes" or "no" on whether to grant him or her another term.

According to Thursday's report, the Illinois high court election was the most expensive retention election in state history and the most expensive nationally since California Chief Justice Rose Bird and two colleagues were voted out in 1986.

But Illinois wasn't alone in its hefty retention election spending, the report noted.

Illinois, Iowa, Alaska and Colorado spent about $4.9 million total in 2010, compared with $2.2 million for all retention elections nationally in the entire 2000-09 decade.

State high court candidates and special interest groups spent a combined $38.4 million nationally in 2009-10, according to the report.

A growing portion of that money was spent by a small number of "secretive" special interest groups, the report said.

"The Kilbride retention race was akin to a shadow boxing match," Cynthia Canary, former director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reformer and a current Justice at Stake Bard member, said in a statement.

"Significant funds came from the key players on either side of the tort reform debate."

The report's authors said the 2009-10 elections reveal a "coalescing" national campaign that seeks to intimidate America's state judges into becoming accountable to money and ideologies, instead of the constitution and the law.

"In its full context, the most recent election cycle poses some of the gravest threats yet to fair and impartial justice in America," they warned.

And it will likely only continue, according to the report.

"More assaults on impartial courts, taking a range of different forms, are on the horizon. They include special-interest election spending, retention election challenges, and further attacks on merit selection of judges," the authors wrote.

"While funding for courts continues to fall, the ability of special interests to spend freely on high court elections, unfettered and in secrecy, will be greater than ever in 2012, given continued court rulings and legislative attacks on campaign finance laws."

For a copy of the complete report, click here.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at

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