JAS: States With Judicial Elections Are ‘Reaching a Tipping Point’

gavel-and-cash.125192919_stdStates that hold elections to choose top judges are “reaching a tipping point,” Justice at Stake cautioned on Thursday, given evidence of high spending to shape state courts, a record level of spending by special interests, and spending by those who will come before a judge.

Scott Greytak, Justice at Stake Policy counsel and Research Analyst, sounded the warning at a National Press Club event in Washington, D.C. held to unveil a detailed study of the latest state Supreme Court campaign trends, “Bankrolling the Bench: The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2013-14.”

The report’s release was especially timely because next week, Pennsylvanians will go to the polls to elect three state Supreme Court justices in what is now making history as the most expensive high court election in that state (see Gavel Grab), noted Liz Seaton, JAS Interim Executive Director. “The problems are getting worse” with judicial elections in states across America, she said.

The report by Justice at Stake, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics, documents trends not only in spending and fundraising but also in campaign advertising. It says “Tough on crime” was the most common campaign theme, as a record 56 percent of TV ad spots discussed the criminal justice records of judges and candidates.

“Criminal justice is a wedge issue, an emotional issue,” and it is used as a common focus of judicial race advertising even though a number of groups sounding these themes have other agendas in mind, said Alicia Bannon, senior counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice and co-author of the report.

When a TV ad in a recent North Carolina Supreme Court race depicted a sitting justice as having “sided with predators,” Justice Barbara Jackson of the N.C. court said at Thursday’s event, it was “troubling to see your colleague demonized like that,” yet the attack didn’t seem to resonate with state voters.

Former Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard said he was concerned that the trends detailed in the report end up having an adverse impact on the rule of law and public confidence in our courts.

“Even the winners … end up so tarnished and beaten up that they are not in a position to evoke from the public, the same level of confidence” that the courts once enjoyed, he said. “A lot of this has to do with the nature of the commercials.” Shepard is a member of the Justice at Stake Board of Directors. He was speaking not in that role but as an individual.

To learn more about the report, see this earlier Gavel Grab post.