The Washington Post, in a front-page article on Friday, spotlights surging spending by outside special interest groups in judicial elections nationwide, and prominently cites Justice at Stake and JAS partner groups.
The article is headlined, “Super PACs, donors turn sights on judicial branch.” The Post examines a drive to oust three state Supreme Court justices in Florida retention elections this year, and their beginning to campaign in response, in identifying a larger trend:
“While deep-pocketed super PACs and ultra-wealthy donors have attracted plenty of attention in the presidential contest this year, they are also making waves further down the political food chain. The mere possibility that a rich benefactor or interest group with endless amounts of money could swoop in, write massive checks and remake an entire court for ideological reasons has prompted judges here in Florida and elsewhere to prepare for battles they never expected to fight.”
Judicial races are attractive to donors because of their relative obscurity and in many cases, a lack of public scrutiny, according to the article, and in a new trend, “The universe of big donors has grown smaller and more concentrated.”
“It’s the single best investment in American politics,” said Charles Hall, spokesman for Justice at Stake. “A few big spenders can really have an outsize effect.”
Explained Roy Schotland, a Georgetown University law professor and expert on judicial elections, “Outside forces are becoming a bigger deal.”He added, “We’re seeing more takeover of the races from the outside.”
To document the trend, the Post draws on data from “The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2009-10,” a joint report by Justice at Stake and its partner groups the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Institute on Money in State Politics. The report found that in 29 judicial races, the five greatest spenders averaged $473,000 apiece. The other spenders averaged $850. And loopholes in disclosure laws gave top donors ways to spend money “in substantial secrecy,” according to the report.
Moreover, a “New Politics” report on the decade between 2000 and 2009 found that spending on judicial elections had more than doubled, the Post article notes. That report was co-authored by Justice at Stake, its partner groups and James Sample, who teaches law at Hofstra University School of Law.
The Post article also highlights increased willingness of outside groups to fund challenges to judges in typically once-sleepy retention (up-or-down) elections. In 2010, out-of-state groups helped fund a successful drive to oust three Iowa Supreme Court justices targeted over a 2009 court decision that permitted same-sex marriages.
“Judges around the country took notice; they talk about it,” Seth Andersen, executive director of the Iowa-based American Judicature Society, a JAS partner group. Andersen said judges were facing the reality that one ruling could draw the ire of well-funded special interests. “It’s like hearing footsteps,” he said. “The point is, what’s the ripple effect?”
In Florida, the targeted Supreme Court justices are concerned about the impact on fair and impartial courts of well-heeled out-of-state groups “with the ability to descend in the final weeks of a campaign and spend millions,” according to the Post article.