An Illinois Supreme justice's successful bid to keep his seat last year was the nation's costliest retention election in a quarter century, legal-reform groups said Thursday in a report raising worries that increased money going into once-ignored races could undermine the judicial system.
Illinois Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride was unopposed last November and narrowly won the simple up-or-down vote on whether he should retain his seat. He received 65 percent of the vote in Illinois' 3rd District, which has 1.2 million voters. Kilbride, first elected to the court in 2000, needed 60 percent of the vote.
But the price tag was steep: $3.5 million, the most ever in a retention race in Illinois, where no high court justice has ever lost such an election.
Kilbride raised $2.8 million and outspent business groups that put up $688,000 in seeking his ouster largely over his vote helping to overturn a state law capping damages in medical malpractice cases, according to the report by the Justice at Stake Campaign, the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Institute on Money and State Politics.
"Illinois' 2010 retention election showed that no state is safe from special-interest attempts to hijack the courts," said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake, a nonpartisan tracker of campaign spending in judicial elections. "Previously, this kind of runaway spending was only seen in partisan elections for judges. More than ever, reforms are needed to keep campaign cash out of the courtroom."
While high court candidates across the U.S. altogether spent $38.4 million during the 2009-2010 election cycle, retention races in four states alone _ Illinois, Iowa, Alaska and Colorado _ cost nearly $4.9 million, more than double the $2.2 million for all retention elections nationwide for that entire decade.
Justices elsewhere weren't as fortunate as Kilbride, with three in neighboring Iowa ousted by what the legal-reform groups termed a well-funded special-interest campaign targeting those jurists for their taking part in a unanimous ruling legalizing same-sex marriage.
Court watchers say similar campaigns targeting unopposed Supreme Court justices were driven by anti-abortion groups in Kansas and anti-tax groups in Colorado. The tactic shifted heated public policy debates from legislative races to the smaller realm of courthouses, leaving some judicial experts worried about the impact on public confidence in the courts and perceptions that judges may be partial or vulnerable to deep-pocketed special interests.
The big-money spending, notably by outside groups, during the last election cycle "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," the report suggested. "In its full context, the most recent election cycle poses some of the gravest threats yet to fair and impartial justice in America."
A message was left Thursday at Kilbride's office seeking comment.