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RELEASE: Partisan Judicial Elections and the Distorting Influence of Campaign Cash

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

Read the full report here.

Washington, D.C. — Today the Center for American Progress released “Partisan Judicial Elections and the Distorting Influence of Campaign Cash,” showing that the eight states that still elect or nominate judicial candidates in partisan races—Alabama, Illinois, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Texas, West Virginia, Ohio, and Michigan—all rank among the top 10 in total judicial campaign contributions. As the amount of money has increased, these states have seen more divisiveness and partisanship reflected in the justices’ votes. The problem could be spreading, as state parties are now intervening at an unprecedented level in judicial races in two states—Montana and Florida—that have nonpartisan elections.

“As voters across the country go to the polls and are asked to vote for judges just like any other political candidate for president or the legislature, you have to stop and think about how it’s possible that judges can be impartial and fair to everyone if they are elected in partisan elections and funded by special interests,” said Andrew Blotky, Director of CAP’s Legal Progress Program.

Partisan primaries lead to judges who are clearly on the side of one interest group or another, and once on the bench, judges facing expensive reelection races are dependent on those special interests for their political future. More than other politicians, judges are expected to be true to the law, not to political parties or campaign contributors. If judges were deciding cases based on the law, one would expect that some cases would favor the plantiff and some the defendant but, having been inundated with corporate campaign cash, many of these state supreme courts—Alabama, Texas, Ohio, and Michigan—are now dominated by conservative judges that favor corporate defendants over individual plain­tiffs.

Michigan’s Republican and Democratic parties choose their judicial candidates at state party conventions where the political elites of each party select candidates in accord with the party’s views. It is no surprise that this leads to a court with a clear ideological divide—one in which justices’ votes are very predictable. From 1998 to 2004 Republicans held a 5-2 majority, and during that era, the judges voted along party lines in 64 percent of the cases cited in this Center for American Progress report. Additionally, another recent study showed that voters will tend to vote for the judicial candidates from the party with which they are affiliated and a high rating by state bar associations had no impact on the candidate’s chances of winning. Partisan politics has no place on the bench.

Candidates in state supreme court races raised around $211 million from 2000 to 2009—two and a half times more than in the previous decade, and states with partisan elections saw much more money than nonpartisan states. There is a ready-built infrastructure for “bundling” donations in place, with state parties acting as conduits for special interests. Partisan elections lead to more campaign contributions because potential campaign donors find it easier to donate money in these races. When voters think of judges’ political affiliation, they often think of cases involving controversial social issues, though they constitute only a fraction of a court’s ruling. In fact, campaign donors are less concerned with social issues and tend to support a particular judge based on how they think that candidate will rule on the individual’s right to sue wrongdoers or if they will uphold “tort reform” laws that limit lawsuits.

There are ways that states can provide voters with relevant information without relying on political parties. Ten years ago, as the surging tide of judicial campaign cash was swelling, North Carolina ended partisan judicial elections, implemented a public financing program, and began distributing voter guides on judicial candidates. Although its public financing program will be tested this year by a super PAC, North Carolina has shown that judicial elections can be held in a manner that minimizes the influence of special interests.

Read the full report here.

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To speak with CAP experts, please contact Christina DiPasquale at 202.481.8181 or cdipasquale@americanprogress.org.

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