When special interest groups channel big spending into judicial elections, including “tough-on-crime” ads aimed at exploiting public safety issues, it can harm impartial justice and public trust in our courts, Scott Greytak of Justice at Stake and Alicia Bannon of the Brennan Center for Justice write in an Atlantic essay.
Their essay is headlined, “The Big Money Propping Up Harsh Sentences: Special-interest groups are funneling millions of dollars into state-court elections, taking a toll on justice and public confidence in judges.” It is drawn in part from the recent report they co-authored, Bankrolling the Bench: The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2013-14. The Atlantic article goes further to cite record-breaking spending in the recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court election, and new research about special interest spending:
“Of the 18 organizations that ran criminal-justice-themed ads in state supreme court elections from 2011 to 2014, only three have positions on the issue listed on their websites. Instead, many groups focus on taxes, the size of government, tort reform, or other business interests.”
The article cites research about the impact of the spending, saying “politicized judicial elections … push judges toward tough-on-crime stances.” And it quotes former Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard as saying, “Even the winners … end up so tarnished and beaten up they are not in a position to evoke from the public the same level of confidence.”
The authors conclude: “Without reform, Americans appearing in court may legitimately ask whether judges are deciding their cases based on the law and constitution—or out of fear of future TV ads accusing them of having ‘sided with the predators’ or having ‘expressed sympathy for rapists.’” The Brennan Center is a Justice at Stake partner organization.