Special-interest groups and political parties spent an unprecedented $24.1 million on television ads and election materials in state court races in 2011-2012, according to a new report by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, Justice at Stake, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
The report, The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2011-12: How New Waves of Special Interest Spending Raised the Stakes for Fair Courts, provides a comprehensive look at 2011-2012 state Supreme Court elections. In the first election cycle since Citizens United, independent spending helped fuel the costliest election cycle for TV spending in judicial election history and posed new threats to fair and impartial justice.
Among the report’s key findings:
- Non-candidate groups (including political parties) pumped in 43% of all funds spent on state high court elections, compared to 22% in the last presidential election cycle. Super PACs and other outside groups funneled big spending into some state judicial elections for the first time.
- 35% of all funds spent on state high court races came from ten deep-pocketed special interest groups and political parties, compared to 21%, coming from the top ten “super spenders” in 2007-08.
- A record $33.7 million was spent on Supreme Court campaign TV ads, far exceeding the previous record of $26.6 million in 2007-08. Negative TV ads aired in at least ten states.
- National politics invaded judicial races in 2011-12. In Iowa, TV ads referenced marriage equality; in Florida, the federal Affordable Care Act; and in Wisconsin, collective bargaining rights.
The report also found legislative attacks on merit-based systems for judge selection, including anti-retention campaigns in Florida and Iowa. Florida experienced record spending by all sides when three state Supreme Court justices stood for retention. On Election Day 2012, however, voters retained the three Florida justices and a challenged justice in Iowa. Voters also rejected ballot measures in three states to give politicians more power over the courts.
The report warns of future attacks on reforms designed to protect fair courts and harmful spending trends. According to the report, “Perhaps most disturbing of all, … is that while independent spending on state court races ballooned in 2011–12, it still has room to grow. …[F]uture years may see an even greater expansion in independent spending by interest groups and parties in judicial elections.”
The New Politics of Judicial Elections reports, produced biennially, have monitored election spending and other threats to the impartiality of state courts since 2000.
Read the New Politics report here.