Interest groups pumped millions of dollars into state judicial elections at unprecedented levels around the country in the last election cycle, a trend that threatens to undermine the impartiality of judges, a report issued Thursday said.
Political parties and advocacy groups working independently from the candidates are accounting for a greater share of spending on judicial elections. Such independent expenditures accounted for $11.5 million, or nearly 30 percent, of the money spent in the 2009-2010 election cycle. That's up more than 60 percent from the 2005-06 election cycle.
That growth helps explain the nasty tone of some judicial elections. While candidates ran mostly positive advertisements, interest groups accounted for three out of every four attack ads, said the report, which was compiled by three organizations, including the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
"The story of the 2009-10 elections, and their aftermath in state legislatures in 2011, reveals a coalescing national campaign that seeks to intimidate America's state judges into becoming accountable to money and ideologies instead of the constitution and the law," said the report.
High-court candidates across the U.S. spent $38.4 million during the 2009-2010 election cycle. Retention races in four states _ Illinois, Iowa, Alaska and Colorado _ cost nearly $4.9 million, more than double the $2.2 million for all retention elections nationwide for the entire decade.
The most expensive high-court elections took place in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Illinois, where the courts were closely divided along party lines.
The nation's costliest retention election in a quarter century took place last year when Illinois Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride faced a simple up-or-down vote to keep his seat. Business groups sought his ouster after he helped overturn a state law capping damages in medical malpractice cases. Kilbride raised $2.8 million while business groups drew $688,000 in their campaign.
In Michigan, the state GOP spent an estimated $4 million and the Michigan Democratic Party spent $1.6 million. The report said the independent spending dwarfed that of the candidates, to the point that the candidates "seemed like bystanders in their own elections." The judicial elections in Michigan were the most expensive in the country.
Perhaps the most abrupt change took place in Iowa where not a single penny was spent in state high-court elections from 2000 to 2009. That changed when the Iowa Supreme Court struck down a state law banning same-sex marriage. National groups, led by the National Organization for Marriage, spent nearly $1 million to vote out three state justices trying to retain their seats. A group called Fair Courts for Us, led by former governor Robert Ray, also spent about $400,000 in an unsuccessful bid to support the incumbents.
The report described the results of the Iowa election as chilling because the campaign was intended to send a warning to judges in all states.
But Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, said he believes talk of intimidation by interest groups is just incorrect. Rather, he said, that the groups are putting their trust in voters.
"Is it intimidation when someone says to a politician you've gone too far. I can't vote for you again?" Brown said. "That's not intimidation. That's democracy at work."
The report also noted that a patchwork of disclosure laws can leave the public in the doubt about who funds the independent expenditure efforts to elect or remove judicial candidates. In Iowa, the laws made it clear who was supporting the effort to remove three justices. But in Michigan, the report said it was impossible to confirm who bankrolled the two party's spending in the judicial elections.
The Brennan Center worked with the National Institute on Money in State Politics and the Justice at Stake Campaign to compile the report. The latter is an advocacy group that describes its mission as keeping special interests out of the courtroom.