It was reported last month that Alabama once again was among the top tier in spending on state judicial races. During 2011-2012, candidates raised more than $4 million in Alabama, even though most races for the Alabama Supreme Court were uncontested. During that election cycle, Alabama finished fifth in the nation in the amount raised by state judicial candidates. The fundraising and spending was driven by a very tough battle for chief justice in both the Republican primary and in the general election. However, the election spending was well under the $14.5 million spent in 2006. Several entities, including the Montgomery Advertiser, released the report, “The New Politics of Judicial Elections” outlining concerns about outside spending in judicial races and the negative used. It also explained how special interest groups are threatening fair and impartial courts.
Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake, said interest groups began to pour money into state judicial races in 2000 and ever since there has been an increasing concern about “justice being for sale.” While spending in judicial races doesn’t receive a lot of attention, Brandenburg says it’s “one of the biggest democracy issues that has been flying under the radar screen of American politics.” He was correct when he declared that state judicial systems are the “engines of our justice system.” Alicia Bannon, counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice, had this to say:
State courts are extremely important with the overwhelming majority of cases resolved in state court and with the rulings affecting almost every aspect of people’s lives.
Brandenburg pointed out that “judges are being forced to become big fundraisers,” adding that “those who contribute, and the issues they push, are coming before state courts.” Justice at Stake, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics released the report.
I was interviewed last year by the Montgomery Advertiser concerning the cost of judicial races in Alabama. I told the Advertiser, for an August 2012 report, that I planned to stay out of the 2012 race. I reminded them that “lawyers don’t need to be participating (financially) in judicial elections,” and that “neither do corporations.” As I told the Advertiser reporter, “it’s time to change.” Regardless of where the campaign money comes from that sort of support could give the “impression” that judges hand down “biased decisions.” The public could certainly reach that conclusion.
Nationally, the cost of state judicial elections has soared in recent years with spending in 2011-2012 at an estimated $56.4 million, according to the report. Bannon and Brandenburg noted the jump in spending in judicial races began in 2000 with business interests and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spending heavily on one side and lawyers and labor unions spending heavily on the other. “What we started to see was an arms race,” Bannon said. She said the sides began “pouring money into these races and spending ratcheted up very quickly.”
Brandenburg believes that judges are now “trapped in the system.” He said three in four Americans believe that campaign contributions affect judicial decisions. Brandenburg said the system is placing more and more political pressure on judges. With the Citizens United v. FEC decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which allowed unlimited independent spending on elections, the spending has continued to increase with the formation of so-called Super PACs and other organizations that are now becoming involved in state judicial races.
Bannon also pointed out that there has been a dramatic increase in outside spending by special interest groups and that many of those groups are spending the money independently instead of directing it to candidates’ campaigns. Those outside groups are more likely to engage in misleading attack ads that hurt the image of the judicial system, according to Bannon, and that contributes to the perception that “justice is for sale.”
Bannon and Brandenburg argued the increased outside spending reduces transparency for those interested in who is seeking to influence court outcomes and is adding to nastier campaign fights. Bannon, one of the authors of the report, said television is increasingly becoming where the state judicial races are fought. “At the same time, mudslinging ads are becoming the order of the day in many states,” Bannon said. She said they contribute to misrepresented records and have “created a carnival atmosphere” with judges becoming indistinguishable from other politicians. Bannon added: “That hurts public confidence in our courts. The public needs to be confident that our courts are not for sale.”
Also, in the last decade, Bannon said they have seen a trend of groups targeting judges regarding votes on specific issues. So, she said, they are being put on notice that controversial decisions could open them up to attacks and lead to expensive re-election fights.
The possible solutions, according to Bannon, include stronger spending disclosure laws, reforms to recusal rules about when judges are expected to step aside when contributors are before them, and public financing for judicial races. Bannon and Brandenburg said judges know where the money is coming from. Brandenburg said any reform “cannot be seen as led by one side or the other,” and I totally agree with that opinion. “Judges across the political system are sounding the alarm about the role of money on judicial elections,” according to Bannon. “The New Politics of Judicial Elections” has tracked the increased politicization, increased spending in judicial races, and the expanding role of money from special interests since 2000. Hopefully, the manner in which judicial elections are carried out will change, and for the better, very soon.
Source: Montgomery Advertiser
Contact us today for a free legal consultation with an experienced attorney.
Fields marked *may be required for submission.
If you would like to subscribe to the Jere Beasley Report digital edition, simply visit our Subscriptions page and provide the necessary information or call us at 800-898-2034.
Attorney Advertising - Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.