Report: Judical Election Spending Soar

By: - June 28, 2005 5:18 am

 Hendersonville Times-News

AP National Writer

Campaign spending for state supreme court races across the nation soared in 2004, with $24.4 million poured into television ads as elections to the bench drew increased attention from interest groups and political parties, according to an analysis released Monday.

The latest number more than doubled the record of $10.6 million set in 2000, the report found. New records for candidate fundraising were set in nine states, with Illinois leading the way: There, two candidates together spent $9.3 million, according to the report from the Justice at Stake Campaign, a nonpartisan group that seeks impartial, independent courts.

"State courts have become an epic battleground, and the contestants are multimillion-dollar special interests who are trying to buy up courts so they’ll rule in favor of special interests rather than the public interest," said Bert Brandenburg, the campaign’s executive director.

Nationwide, 38 states elect judges to their highest courts. Eighteen hold contested elections; in 16, judges are appointed and then face retention elections to stay on the bench; four others use some mix of the two systems.

The campaign supports public financing of judicial elections or merit selection, as well as voter guides that would help counter attack ads. Last year, North Carolina became the first state to offer full public financing for appellate court candidates.

The report said that the legal fight over tort reform has drawn money from business groups and trial lawyers, with interest groups spending $7.4 million on TV ads in six states in the latest election cycle.

Political parties are jumping in, too, spending nearly $4.6 million in 2003-04.

The report said 2000 was the turning point, when big money began to appear in several states, but that 2004 saw the numbers really take off.

"Big money court races are no longer confined to a handful of perennial battleground states, like Illinois and Ohio," the report said. "They are rapidly spreading to states where supreme court campaigns had not metastasized into political brawls – until now."

The campaign argues that negative ads and the increased politicization of the bench are undermining public confidence in the judiciary, and that at the same time there is significant public support for changes that the group says would reduce the influence of money on judges.

Among the members of the Justice at Stake Campaign are the American Bar Association, the American Judicature Society, the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law and the League of Women Voters Judicial Independence Project.

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066