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RELEASE: Disclosure Laws Needed to Ensure Transparency in Judicial Elections

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Contact: Christina DiPasquale
Phone: 202.481.8181
Email: cdipasquale@americanprogress.org

Attack Ads from Anonymous Donors Threaten Impartial Judicial Rulings

Read the full report here.

Washington, D.C. —  As this year’s election approaches, political attack ads are flooding the airwaves, fueled by a series of campaign finance reform setbacks that allow corporations and wealthy individuals to secretly contribute unlimited sums of money to support a particular candidate based on their own policy agenda. The Center for American Progress today released “Disclosure Laws Needed to Ensure Transparency in Judicial Elections,” recommending ways to counteract the influence of corporate interest groups that have come to dominate judicial campaign spending in many states, jeopardizing the impartiality of the judges and the cases they will rule on with far-reaching effects.

This Legal Progress report, the first in a series recommending policies to help mitigate the influence of corporate campaign cash in judicial elections, presents a patchwork of state laws struggling to keep up with the campaign finance changes handed down by recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings. Legal Progress recommends more robust disclosure rules covering electioneering communications, donors to independent spenders, corporate independent spending, and last minute contributions. These rules would help ensure that voters know the actual source behind the ads and that litigants know of potential conflicts of interest during a trial.

While the political landscape has had no trouble adapting, as evidenced by the emergence of the first SuperPACs created for judicial races this year, this report urges states to consider specific disclosure rules that govern contributions and independent expenditures because of the unique interests involved in judicial elections. More broadly, this report recommends the following policy options to encourage adequate campaign finance disclosure in judicial elections:

  • Require reporting of independent expenditures and any other ads that refer to candidates
  • Ensure that campaign finance laws require disclosure of donors who gave money to independent spenders, as well as the donors’ occupation and employer
  • Demand that a corporation obtain approval from its board of directors for any political spending and that it report such spending to its shareholders
  • Implement rules that require ads funded by corporations and nonprofits to list the top five donors
  • Mandate that contributions or expenditures occurring in the final weeks of an election be reported within 24 hours

Without effective disclosure laws, the growing tide of unlimited anonymous campaign cash threatens to overwhelm judicial elections. Candidates for state Supreme Courts have shattered fundraising records in recent elections, and more states are seeing special interest money flood judicial elections. The figures for independent spending are hard to discern because the states’ disclosure rules vary widely, but is clear that it has exceeded direct spending by the candidates in many states, meaning that special interest groups—not the candidates—set the tone of the campaigns.

Disclosure is a commonsense reform, and polls suggest the vast majority of citizens—Republican and Democrat alike—support disclosure. These rules are crucial for judi­cial elections because they determine whether voters can find out who is running ads for judicial candidates. With the federal regulatory agency paralyzed by partisan infighting, it falls to state agencies to take a tough approach to enforcing campaign finance laws.

Read the full report here.

To speak with CAP experts on this topic, or to learn more about the Legal Progress series “Policy Solutions to the Corporate Capture of State Supreme Courts,” please contact Christina DiPasquale at 202.481.8181 or cdipasquale@americanprogress.org.

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To speak with our experts on this topic, please contact:

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Print: Tom Caiazza (foreign policy, health care, energy and environment, LGBT issues, gun-violence prevention)
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