In the past, Alabama has topped the charts for its expensive state Supreme Court elections. This year, however, the state may be headed toward “the cheapest Supreme Court race in years,” according to an Anniston Star headline.
The accompanying news article reports that candidates for the state’s highest court pumped more than $400,000 into buying TV ads in the Birmingham broadcast TV market during the primary, a relatively “bargain basement” price compared to historic levels. To frame the contrast, the newspaper relied on data from a report on judicial election spending co-authored by Justice at Stake.
Between 2000 and 2008, candidates for the state Supreme Court raised $40 million, according to the report. And Alabama’s 2006 election for Supreme Court chief justice cost $13 million, the most expensive judicial race ever, according to Justice at Stake.
Such costly judicial elections matter because of public perception. Judicial campaigns are primarily funded by “a very, very small, well-moneyed group of individuals,” said James Sample, a a Hofstra University law professor, who co-authored the report on judicial election spending between 2000 and 2009.
“The perception of pay-for-play justice is there,” Sample said. “Even if it’s just a perception, that perception is a problem.”
Gerard Gryski, chair of the political science department at Auburn University, said about the recent spending decline, “It sounds like the Republicans don’t have to spend anything because they know they’re going to win it.” He added “Democrats don’t want to spend anything because they know they’re going to lose it. And I don’t see that changing in the near future.”
Republicans firmly control the Alabama Supreme Court after a decade of costly election contests. Gryski’s view echoed a recent analysis by Charles Hall, a Justice at Stake spokesman (see Gavel Grab). “Democrats, at least for now, have left the field in Alabama,” he said. Democrats are not fielding viable candidates for the court, and the struggle for control has shifted, Hall said, and is between factions in the Republican Party.