Citing data from the recently released The New Politics of Judicial Elections report, a Moyers & Company article warns that “…state high courts are falling prey to the same out-of-control, post-Citizens United election spending that has plagued legislative and executive races during the past two election cycles.”
The John Light article titled, “Dark Money’s New Frontier: State Judicial Elections,” highlighted that more than $56 million was spent on state high court races across the country. A significant chunk of this money came from special interests one would expect to find operating at the national level – $19.6 million of the $56.4 million total.
The story notes that last year’s election wasn’t the first time large sums of money were spent on judicial elections, but until recently, the majority came from a judge’s personal campaign war chest. What’s new is the influx of special interest money.
State judicial elections are becoming increasingly politicized, judges are the target of “intimidation” efforts across America and these trends pose a danger for impartial courts, former Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Marsha Ternus warned today.
Justice Ternus spoke during a panel convened in Washington, D.C. by Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice to spotlight a new report, the “New Politics of Judicial Elections 2011-12.” The nation’s constitutional system is threatened when public confidence in the courts is eroding, she said.
Justice Ternus was removed from the Iowa bench in 2010 after interest groups pumped money into a campaign to oust her and two colleagues over a controversial marriage decision. The groups behind the effort wanted to send a message nationwide, she said, while mocking the targeted justices as “the ruling class” that “ignores the people at their peril.”
“It did send a much more effective message of intimidation” when the three were voted off the bench in a retention election, she said. And even when such an effort is not successful, she added, such efforts “leave a legacy of suspicion,” fear and intimidation and are dangerous for the courts. “That’s a terribly way to operate a court system that is the foundation of our democracy,” she said.
A report on the “New Politics of Judicial Elections, 2011-12″ is getting news coverage across the country as a result of an Associated Press article about it. The report was compiled by Justice at Stake, the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
The AP began by mentioning a Des Moines Register article (see Gavel Grab) that reported on the spending of $833,000 in Iowa, where a state Supreme Court justice successfully stood for retention election amid controversy over a unanimous decision in 2009 about marriage for same-sex couples.
The Iowa election spending is an example of how special interest spending in judicial elections “has turned into an arms race,” said Alicia Bannon, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. “The American people need to know that judges are deciding cases based on the law, not on who spent the most money to support their campaign.”
In two key judicial election battleground states, a report on “The New Politics of Judicial Elections, 2011-12” attracted headlines on Thursday, the day it was released online.
Co-authored by Justice at Stake, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics, the report documented unprecedented spending of $24.1 million by special interest groups and political parties on television ads and other election materials in state court races during the last election cycle.
“New report shows NC Supreme Court race drew record outside spending,” declared the headline for a (Raleigh) News & Observer blog post. Overall spending added up to more than $4.4 million, including $3.8 million in outside spending, on the North Carolina race between incumbent Justice Paul Newby and Judge Sam Ervin IV.
“Our courts are supposed to be a safe place for impartial justice, but campaign cash and political pressure are threatening to tip the scales,” the post quoted Bert Brandenburg, JAS executive director, as saying. “If Americans start thinking of judges as politicians in robes, our democracy is in trouble.” Read more
A report on “The New Politics of Judicial Elections, 2011-12” was posted online today, and it already has grabbed news media attention in The Daily Beast.
The latest in a series of “New Politics” reports since 2000 documents an election cycle that poses grave new threats to fair and impartial justice in America, according to the three legal reform groups that co-authored the report. The co-authors are Justice at Stake, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
The Daily Beast article by Eleanor Clift highlighted the report’s finding that special interest money was unleashed in judicial elections to an unprecedented degree in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United. The article was headlined, “Special Interest Money Has Upended Judicial Elections, Says New Report: Judges are supposed to be insulated from politics. But the 2010 Citizens United decision is putting the judicial system’s integrity at risk, a new report out Thursday warns.”
Overall, spending on high court elections in the 2011-12 cycle totaled $56.4 million, with $33.7 million spent on state Supreme Court TV advertising, up 42 percent from 2001. Bert Brandenburg, JAS executive director, said, “It’s the biggest threat to democracy that nobody’s heard of.”
“In the end, we want judges to decide cases based on the law and the Constitution, and not based on who gave them money,” said Alicia Bannon, counsel in the Democracy Program of the Brennan Center and the report’s main author. Read more
“Minnesota should act now to prevent politics from invading its judicial system,” a Rochester Post-Bulletin editorial declares in favorably discussing a proposed constitutional amendment for the merit-based selection of judges.
The proposal calls for gubernatorial appointment of judges from a list of finalists recommended by a merit selection commission, a retention election if the judge seeks to stay on the bench, and nonpartisan evaluation of judges’ performance by an independent performance evaluation commission. It has drawn bipartisan support.
In building an argument for reform, the editorial suggests that Minnesota’s current system for election of judges could result in a court heavily influenced by politics or special interests. Court rulings including the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, the editorial says, have created “an environment in which a sitting judge in Minnesota could be targeted by a candidate who has the backing of a political party, a corporation or a wealthy individual who has an ax to grind.” Read more
Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor discussed in remarks on Wednesday her deep concerns over the challenges caused by Citizens United, the court’s blockbuster campaign finance ruling in 2010.
“Citizens United produced a decision that, over the years, is going to cause lots of issues for the public to resolve,’’ she told an audience at Roger Williams University School of Law in Rhode Island, according to the Associated Press.
‘‘I think it may have caused more problems than answers given,’’ she said. ‘‘I don’t know what we’re going to do with the problems raised by Citizens United.’’ Justice O’Connor retired well before the court’s 2010 ruling, which struck down key restrictions and allowed unlimited independent spending by unions and corporations to influence the election of federal candidates.
President Obama, in the midst of a partial government shutdown, has repeated his criticism of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. It “contributed to some of the problems we’re having in Washington right now,” in his opinion, he said.
Huffington Post reported the following remarks by the president about the blockbuster ruling that cleared the way for unlimited independent spending by corporations and unions to influence the election of federal candidates:
“I continue to believe that Citizens United contributed to some of the problems we’re having in Washington right now.”
“You have some ideological extremist who has a big bankroll, and they can entirely skew our politics. And there are a whole bunch of members of Congress right now who privately will tell you, ‘I know our Read more
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Tuesday in a major campaign finance regulation case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, challenging aggregate limits on an individual’s giving to candidates and to committees. The court was divided, and to some leading news media, it appeared leaning toward a decision.
“The Supreme Court on Tuesday seemed prepared to strike down a part of federal campaign finance law left intact by its decision in Citizens United in 2010: overall limits on direct contributions from individuals to candidates,” reported the New York Times. A majority of the high court “seemed skeptical” of that limit, suggested the Washington Post.
A final ruling from the court may be limited in its scope. Reuters reported that the court “signaled an unwillingness to issue another broad ruling on how much people can donate in federal elections.” Read more
One of the first cases set to be heard by the Supreme Court in its new term, involving campaign finance, is getting extensive commentary and media attention. The case, McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission, is seen by some advocates as having “the potential to destroy what is left of federal campaign finance regulation,” the New York Times reported.
The case involves a challenge to aggregate federal limits on campaign donations to candidates and committees. Some analysts have called it a sequel to Citizens United, which in 2010 transformed the political landscape by removing key limits on election spending by corporations and labor unions.
“If you knock out aggregate contribution limits, you create a system of legalized bribery in this country,” cautioned Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21. Read more