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JAS Cited: Special Interest Money Surging in State Judicial Elections

law-cash-21816475More than $1 million has been spent by special interest groups in television advertising in five state judicial elections in the past week, and more is expected in the days before the Nov. 4 election.

Legal Newsline, citing data from Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice, reported outside television ad spending for this judicial election cycle has reached nearly $2.1 million.

Also using JAS data, the Washington Post said overall spending by outside groups, political parties, candidates and their committees on television ads in state supreme court races stands at $12.1 million so far.

Meanwhile, an in-depth report on looks at many aspects of judicial elections and concludes, “With the explosion of high-stakes, big-money judicial races, it should come as little surprise that fewer than three in 10 Americans express a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in both our criminal and civil legal systems.”

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New Trends in Judicial Elections Pose Threats, JAS Tells USA Today

corrupt justiceNew trends in increasingly politicized state judicial elections pose real dangers for people who seek impartial justice from elected judges, USA Today quotes Justice at Stake as saying.

“The big fear is that judges will start to change their decisions because of political pressure,” JAS Executive Director Bert Brandenburg told USA Today. “If money affects a decision in court, you just violated the Constitution.” Surveying judicial elections in numerous states, the newspaper identified these new trends:

  • “In some contests, spending by outside groups — from trial lawyers on the left to conservative groups on the right — is dwarfing the money raised by the candidates.” (See the latest JAS and Brennan Center for Justice analysis here.)
  • “A new study suggests that ‘soft on crime’ attacks leveled against judges in recent years has skewed their jurisprudence, making them less likely to side with criminal defendants.” (See Gavel Grab to learn about the study.)
  • “The U.S. Supreme Court is preparing to decide whether laws that ban would-be judges from soliciting campaign cash violate their First Amendment rights — a verdict that could lead to more wide-open electioneering.” (See Gavel Grab to learn about the case.)

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JAS, Partner: Outside Groups Boost TV Ad Spending on Court Races

Special interest groups have dramatically boosted their TV ad expenditures to influence state supreme court races in five states with less than a week to go until Election Day, Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice said on Thursday.

jas_logoIn an analysis focusing on contests in Michigan, Montana, North Carolina, Illinois, and Ohio, JAS and its partner organization said outside groups have spent nearly $2.1 million on TV ad buys for the general election, with nearly $1 million of that sum spent over the last week.

20100304214046_Brennan_Logo_2007_small-3When spending by political parties is also included, total non-candidate TV ad spending jumps to nearly $4.5 million for the general election.

“Partisans and special interests often rely on last-minute campaign ads to turn out their base and tip judicial contests,” said Bert Brandenburg, JAS executive director, in a joint statement. “Voters get a barrage of nasty ads and scary music, but little of the information they need to make informed choices.” Read more

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JAS on Illinois Court Retention Election: ‘Here We Go Again’

Screen shot 2014-10-29 at 11.25.59 AMWith Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier facing opposition in his retention election from a group heavily funded by plaintiffs’ lawyers, the Republican State Leadership Committee has jumped into the race and spent $950,000 in support of Karmeier, the Chicago Tribune reported. (The article is available through Google.)

“Here we go again,” Justice at Stake Executive Director Bert Brandenburg told the Tribune. Illlinois again has become a battleground state in a “long-running war being fought between plaintiffs’ lawyers and big business” over high courts, the newspaper said, mentioning a record $9.3 million spent when Justice Karmeier was elected in 2004.

Screen shot 2014-10-29 at 11.29.10 AMThe contest has featured fierce advertising. A TV ad aired by Campaign for 2016, the opposition group, said that Justice Karmeier received millions from pro-business interests in 2004 then voted to strike down huge verdicts against State Farm and Philip Morris. “Our justice is not for sale,” the narrator said at its end. The RSLC-sponsored ad says the justice has been tough on violent criminals and stood up to “Chicago trial lawyers who have tried to buy the courts.” Read more

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Editorial: Is Justice ‘For Sale to the Highest Bidder’?

law-cash-21816475With millions of dollars from special interest groups pouring into state judicial elections, a USA Today editorial joins a growing media outcry deploring the current trends and urging reform.

“At best, the system no longer appears fair. At worst, justice is for sale to the highest bidder,” the editorial laments. “Until more join up” with adoption of public financing for judicial elections, as have New Mexico and and West Virginia, the editorial says,
“anyone who goes to court will have to wonder whether the judge on the bench is handing down justice or repaying a favor.”

To back up its assertions about spending trends in judicial elections, the editorial linked to data compiled by Justice at Stake and partner organizations. Read more

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JAS: N.C. Judicial Candidates Raise Record $2.9 Million

A year after North Carolina’s pioneering public financing program for judicial elections was eliminated, candidates for the state Supreme Court have raised a record-setting sum this election cycle, Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice said on Tuesday.

Noth-Carolina-State-FlagThe candidates’ campaigns have raised $2.9 million and spent $1.9 million on TV ads in advance of the Nov. 4 election, the groups said in a joint analysis. They also said that the Republican State Leadership Committee has reportedly channeled $400,000 into a state-based political action committee.

“It’s troubling that so much special interest money continues to be poured into judicial races across the country,” said JAS Executive Director Bert Brandenburg. “What’s really worrisome is the ‘dark money’ that is being spent on television ads. There’s no way a sketchy television ad can inform a voter about a judge’s true qualifications.” Read more

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‘Are Our Courts for Sale?’ N.Y. Times and Others Weigh In, Cite JAS

Image from Mother Jones Package

Image from Mother Jones Package

The New York Times, NPR, and Mother Jones are the latest national media to raise or report troubling questions that arise from big spending on judicial elections, all quoting Justice at Stake, and bannering such headlines as “Are our Courts for Sale?” (in the Times) and “Is Your Judge for Sale?” (Mother Jones).

Joe Nocera’s op-ed in the Times examines the ways that deep-pocketed special interests and partisans are spending on such judicial contests as a primary for the North Carolina Supreme Court. Incumbent Justice Robin Hudson was attacked in a TV ad as having “sided with the [child] molesters.” It was misleading and “one of the most shocking ads aired this political season,” Nocera writes.

“[H]er experience is being replicated in many of the 38 states that hold some form of judicial elections,” Nocera continues. Then he quotes JAS Executive Director Bert Brandenburg as saying,  “We are seeing money records broken all over the country. Right now, we are watching big money being spent in Michigan. We are seeing the same thing in Montana and Ohio. There is even money going into a district court race in Missouri.” Brandenburg added, “This is the new normal.” Read more

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JAS Sees ‘Best Compromise Solution’ in Tennessee Ballot Measure

TennesseeWith voters in several states weighing judicial selection system changes on Election Day, a National Law Journal article explains the proposals and quotes Justice at Stake about a ballot measure in Tennessee.

The proposed constitutional amendment, called Amendment 2, would change the way Tennessee’s appellate judges are chosen. After the governor appoints a judge, legislative confirmation would be required, if the amendment passes. When a judge seeks a new term, voters would decide whether to retain him or her.

JAS Executive Director Bert Brandenburg told National Law Journal that the proposal is “an attempt to really cut through a gordian knot the state has been grappling with for a while. The best compromise solution that was put together by both sides was to have what’s on the ballot now.” (The article is available through Google). Read more

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Justice McCaffery Resigns; More Calls for Merit Selection in PA

Justice McCaffery

Justice McCaffery

BULLETIN: Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery has resigned, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on Monday. “The Judicial Conduct Board agreed to halt an ethics investigation the Supreme Court had ordered into his conduct,” the newspaper said.

When does a very public scandal spur action toward reform? In Pennsylvania, a Justice at Stake partner organization advocating for a switch to the merit selection of judges says the time for action is now, given a fresh state Supreme Court scandal. It followed the criminal conviction of an ex-justice last year for public corruption in running for election to the court.


“The cycle of scandal in our court system must end. No more embarrassing headlines. No more distractions. It’s time to restore Pennsylvanians’ trust in our justice system,” Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts Executive Director Lynn Marks and Program Director Suzanne Almeida write in a op-ed. They urge adoption by the legislature of a constitutional amendment for merit selection of appellate judges, to replace contested, partisan judicial elections.

Justice Seamus McCaffery was suspended by the court recently after an email scandal drew headlines and conflict among court members (see Gavel Grab). What some observers have called a “mess” on the court is continuing to draw extensive commentary and renewed calls for a shift to merit selection. Read more

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Focus on Spending Before Nov. 4: Are State Judiciaries ‘For Sale’?

gavel_cash_greatWith less than two weeks until Election Day, there was a deluge of reporting and commentary in news media about spending by partisan and special interest groups in judicial races, much of it informed by data tracking conducted by Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice.

Spending nationwide by outside groups and supreme court candidates on TV advertising had climbed to more than $9.1 million last week, a joint analysis by JAS and the Brennan Center reported on Friday. The following articles referenced the study:

  • A Washington Post blog reported, “Outside groups and political parties are driving judicial campaigning.” The blog focused on the fact that almost 63 percent of the TV advertising purchased so far in state supreme court campaigns was footed by political parties and outside groups.

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