‘Bankrolling the Bench’ is Released, Featured in Mother Jones

Screen Shot 2015-10-29 at 12.11.37 PMA report titled “Bankrolling the Bench: The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2013-14” was posted online today, and it already has captured news media attention from Mother Jones magazine.

The latest in a series of “New Politics” reports since 2000 documents an election cycle that saw special-interest groups account for a record-high 29 percent of total spending in judicial races, 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.

Mother Jones highlighted the report’s central findings in an article that was headlined, “Huge Sums Are Pouring Into Judicial Elections, But That Would Never Affect the Courts, Right? A new report shows that the flood of independent spending in judicial races across the country continues to head skyward.”

With its eye on longterm trends, the magazine said, “Supreme Court justices in 38 states must face voters to either earn their seats or keep them. But over the last few years, what were once sleepy, local affairs have grown into multimillion-dollar races that have increasingly drawn the attention of special-interest groups from all over the country.” (more…)

Coming Soon From JAS, Partner Groups: ‘Bankrolling the Bench’

Sales-Tax-money-gavelA comprehensive report on how deep-pocketed special interests “upped their game” in state Supreme Court elections in the last election cycle will be unveiled at an event on Oct. 29.

Justice at Stake, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics have co-authored Bankrolling the Bench: The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2013-14, and it will be presented and discussed at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

The report will disclose how national groups investing across multiple states joined local organizations in spending big to swing elections their way. It charts the latest trends and record-breaking spending on judicial races, examining how it all poses a grave threat to fair and impartial justice in America. You can click here to RSVP or if you have questions.

The Brennan Center and the National Institute on Money in State Politics are JAS partner organizations.

Is Election Transparency Important to Democracy?

Campaign finance reform is about much more than limits to donations, MintPress News reports. Transparency International’s 2014 Corruption Perception Index says that the $3.7 billion spent on elections in the 2014 midterms has added to a “murky nexus” between money and politics.

Much of this money was spent by Super PACs, groups that are exempt from disclosure regulations. This loophole exists because Super PAC money is supposed to be directed to educational advertisements. This one requirement is easily circumvented, because transparency laws in many states only prohibit the use of so called magic words, such as “vote for” and “vote against.” Attack ads can therefore become pervasive without having to reveal the people who financed them.


Christian Post Essay: Courts Threatened by Money in Elections

gavel-and-cash.125192919_stdIn the Christian Post, described by Wikipedia as an evangelical Christian newspaper, a guest contributor registers concern over the influence of money in politics and says it is threatening our courts too. Nate Kratzer’s essay cites data from Justice at Stake:

“Not only are our politics tilted toward donors who have bankrolled our elections but our independent branch of government, the Courts, are threatened too. According to The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2011-12 report by Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice, 87 percent of voters said they believed direct donations to judges’ campaigns and independent spending by outside groups on TV ads had either ‘some’ or ‘a great deal’ of influence on the decisions of judges. The American Constitution Society’s report, Justice at Risk, draws a direct correlation between contributions and judicial decisions, especially in business.” (more…)

'We are Being Slimed': N.C. Bar Leader About Courts, Lawyers


The integrity of the judiciary and the reputation of lawyers are getting “slimed” by developments including special interests pouring millions of dollars into judicial elections with nasty political ads, says Catharine Biggs Arrowood, the new president of the North Carolina Bar Association.

The Greensboro News & Record‘s Doug Clark devoted his column to reprinting the text of her speech after her swearing-in on Saturday, which Gavel Grab found an eye-popper for its cataloguing of threats and challenges for impartial courts. Here are  excerpts:

  • “[R]ecent US Supreme Court decisions have unleashed a flood of outside money in our judicial races. … This situation causes the public to lose confidence in the integrity of the judiciary and slanders the reputation of lawyers. Like Bill Murray in Ghostbusters, we are being slimed.”
  • “This erosion of public confidence in the judiciary is not just anecdotal. It is real.” (more…)

Article Cites 'New Politics' Report on Judicial Election Spending

Screen shot 2013-10-24 at 10.57.02 AMAs 2014 judicial campaigns rev up in some states, a Huffington Post article recaps soaring independent spending in judicial elections, and it relies on a 2013 report co-authored by Justice at Stake.

Independent expenditures (by non-candidate entities) added up to 22 percent of total judicial election spending in 2008, compared to 43 percent in 2012, according to the study, “The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2011-2012.”

The article also discusses spending and advertising in a Democratic primary contest for a 113th District Court seat in Texas. The political action (more…)

Despite Her Ouster, Ex-Judge Says Merit Selection Works Best

In a piece published in the National Law Journal, former Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court Marsha Ternus looks to her own experiences to make a case against politicized justice systems. She also cites spending data from “New Politics of Judicial Elections 2011-2012,” co-authored by Justice at Stake, to underscore her point that an ongoing “effort to politicize impartial courts is not receding.”

Ternus writes that she was among three justices of the Iowa high court who were ousted in a retention (yes-or-no) election following the court’s ruling that marriages for same-sex couples were permissible under the state constitution.  She and her colleagues were targeted for defeat by a well-financed coalition  that included a significant cadre of out-of-state activists. “Public debate about the merits of court decisions is a healthy aspect of a democratic society,” she notes, “yet the unprecedented Iowa ouster campaign delivered a message of intimidation and retaliation.”

She maintains that when political ideology becomes a driving force in the selection of judges, as it does in judicial elections, courts become “mini-legislatures composed of judges with preordained views who believe their opinions must be represented.” Her piece makes the case that in this situation, collegial decision-making becomes all but impossible. (more…)

'New Politics' Report Gets Media Attention in Wisconsin

Former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz, whose saga of being targeted by big special interest spending in a judicial election has captured widespread attention, was to address a Wisconsin audience on Monday. In the run-up to his speech, WUWM radio aired a report saying Wisconsin’s judicial elections are among the nation’s nastiest and citing Justice at Stake as its source.

The “New Politics of Judicial Elections 2011-12″ report featured Wisconsin’s court elections as a case study, WUWM recounted, and the report “says the politicization and influence of outside money is undermining public confidence in the court.”

“When people have a perception that justice can be bought or sold, it undermines the whole system of our courts – our system of impartial justice,” former Justice Diaz says. His story has been told in a documentary and it inspired a novel by John Grisham.

The “New Politics” report was recently released by JAS, the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Atlantic: When Judges are not Immune to Money Interests

An Atlantic online article spotlights massive spending on state judicial elections — as highlighted by Justice at Stake — and some judges’ assets that may pose a conflict of interest as twin threats to fair and impartial courts.

The article is headlined, “How America’s Judges Are Being Bought Out: We think of courts as being immune to money interests. Some of them, as disclosure reports for state Supreme Court judges reveal, are not.” It focuses on a Center for Public Integrity report this week that gave 42 states and the District of Columbia failing grades as a part of an evaluation of disclosure requirements for high court judges (see Gavel Grab).

The article also provides a link to the “New Politics of Judicial Elections 2011-12” report compiled by JAS, the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Institute on Money in State Politics. The article states:

“In recent years, some judicial elections have begun to look just like political campaigns, complete with attack ads, political action committees, and millions of dollars in fundraising for candidates. The financial involvement of special-interest groups in state Supreme Court races across the country has blurred the boundaries between money and politics and justice, alarming citizens and ethicists alike.”

Justice at Stake, 'New Politics' Report Featured on MSNBC Newscast

MSNBC has featured Justice at Stake Executive Director Bert Brandenburg paired with a former state Supreme Court chief justice in a segment on the Craig Melvin show entitled, “Judges for Sale?”

The recently released “New Politics of Judicial Elections 2011-12″ report disclosed that a record $33.7 million was spent on TV advertising in state court elections during the latest cycle, Melvin said, and he interviewed Brandenburg and former Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson of the Texas Supreme Court about the implications of this soaring spending.

“People spend money because they want something out of the courts,” Brandenburg said, suggesting that the “tort wars” are in turn becoming “the court wars” waged over tilting the scales of justice in state high courts across the country. “In the end,” Brandenburg warned, “the public is wondering, ‘Is Justice for Sale?’”

Former Justice Jefferson said that in Texas, few people actually know the qualifications of numerous judges listed on a ballot, and voters end up casting a ballot along straight-party lines. “That’s why it’s a broken system — accountability doesn’t work in this context,” he said. (more…)