This year’s judicial elections were dominated by the large-scale independent spending ushered in by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, with independent spending overtaking that of the candidates’ campaigns for the first time. Of the $15 million spent, more than $8.5 million came from independent groups, including nonprofits that do not disclose their donors, sometimes known as dark-money groups. Using data on ad spending from Kantar Media and the Atlas Project, this column examines contributions to judges whose campaigns benefited from more than $1 million in spending.
The following candidates received cash from attorneys or corporations that could potentially appear before them in a court of law. By a wide margin, the biggest spender was the Republican State Leadership Committee, or RSLC—an organization that, until recently, worked to elect state legislators. In 2014, the RSLC spent money in jurisdictions that had never before seen multimillion-dollar judicial races, including in statewide elections in Montana and Tennessee, as well as a local election in Cole County, Missouri. The RSLC receives money from tobacco companies, Koch Industries, and other large corporations.
The North Carolina state legislature recently repealed an innovative public financing program for judicial candidates, and as a result, a record $5 million was spent this year. Although the RSLC was the biggest spender, most of the money came from the candidates themselves. Without public funds, judges had to go into fundraising overdrive to spend big on television ads.
Chief Justice Mark Martin
North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin’s campaign spent more than $500,000—not including independent money from outside sources that benefited his campaign—a sum well beyond the expenditures of the other campaigns. The chief justice’s campaign received money from lawyers and corporations, as well as a North Carolina tea party group, Asheville Tea PAC, that announced it would hold a raffle for an assault rifle a few days after the 2012 Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting.
The chief justice also received support from the RSLC and a group organized by the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce. North Carolina-based Duke Energy, the country’s largest power company, made substantial donations to both the RSLC and the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce. At the same time, Duke Energy had tens of billions of dollars at stake in litigation in North Carolina courts, including lawsuits over its obligation to protect residents from contamination in their drinking water.
Aside from its donors, the RSLC has its own interests. The Center for American Progress recently concluded that the RSLC is trying to shape state courts “to protect its legislative achievements.” In North Carolina, the RSLC helped elect the GOP state legislature and then helped draw the 2011 redistricting map. Since a lawsuit challenging this map was filed in state court, the RSLC has spent millions of dollars to keep the state supreme court conservative.
The Ohio Supreme Court has long seen big-money elections and nasty attack ads. Although the general elections are ostensibly nonpartisan, judicial candidates are chosen in partisan primaries. Ohio was one of the first states to see multimillion-dollar elections in the late 1990s, as the insurance industry spent big in response to a few rulings against the industry. Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, a Republican, has called for reforming judicial elections to keep partisanship out of the primaries and increase voters’ awareness of judicial elections.
Justice Judith French
Ohio Supreme Court Justice Judith French, a 2014 candidate, received criticism for telling GOP supporters, “I am a Republican and you should vote for me,” despite the fact that party affiliation does not appear on the ballot. Justice French also described her court as the “backstop” for bills passed by the conservative legislature. “We are the ones that will decide whether it is constitutional,” she said. Money to support Justice French accounted for $1 million of the $1.5 million spent in this year’s Ohio Supreme Court race. Justice French’s campaign was bolstered by around $600,000 from American Freedom Builders, a dark-money 501(c)(4) group closely tied to Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R). The group funded a study promoting Gov. Kasich’s tax cut proposal. The group reportedly received $15,000 from a tobacco company last year, and its president is a fundraising consultant who worked with other nonprofits that were running ads in Ohio Supreme Court races, according to The Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Justice French’s campaign spent more than $400,000, with big donations from utility companies that frequently appear before the court. As with previous Republican candidates, Justice French received financial support from the insurance industry.
For the third time in a row, the 2014 Michigan Supreme Court election was dominated by spending that was not reported under state law. The state political parties in 2012 ran so-called “issue ads” that discussed candidates but did not explicitly tell viewers to vote for or against them. The two parties—along with the Judicial Crisis Network in Washington, D.C.—reported spending $1.6 million on the race, but the Michigan Campaign Finance Network found nearly $14 million in undisclosed spending that year.
Justice Brian Zahra
The Michigan Campaign Finance Network estimated that the Michigan Republican Party spent $4.2 million this year on ads for Michigan Supreme Court Justice Brian Zahra and other Republican candidates. Yet the group did not report any of this spending. The issue ads praised the judges for protecting children in the weeks before the election. The state Republican party received almost $1.5 million from the DeVos family, whom Mother Jones called “the new Kochs.” Richard DeVos Jr., the heir to the family’s Amway fortune, played a key role in pushing Michigan’s union-busting right-to-work law in 2012. The Michigan Supreme Court is currently hearing a case on whether the legislation applies to state employees.
The Center for Individual Freedom spent nearly half a million dollars on ads that claimed Justice Zahra and another candidate had “thrown the book at violent child predators.” The Center for Individual Freedom is known for aggressively challenging state campaign finance disclosure laws in courts across America. Organized under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code, it is also testing federal laws that limit the political activities of “‘social welfare’ nonprofits.” The Center for Individual Freedom was reportedly founded with resources from a big tobacco organization. Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, another 501(c)(4) group, has given generously to the organization as well. Campaign finance reform advocates are calling on the IRS to investigate political groups that masquerade as social welfare nonprofits.
Justice Richard Bernstein
Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein was elected without independent support, spending millions of dollars of his own money. A plaintiffs’ trial lawyer, Justice Bernstein also received money from other lawyers, some of whom could potentially appear before him. Bernstein’s campaign benefited from thousands of dollars from political action committees funded by Michigan unions, including public employee unions, which have an enormous stake in litigation over the Michigan right-to-work law.
The 2014 election vividly illustrates former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens’ warning in his Citizens United dissent that the majority had “unleashed the floodgates” of spending in judicial races. Groups unaffiliated with the candidates can often accept unlimited contributions, and most judicial ethics rules do not even mention independent spending as a basis for recusal. Reforms such as public financing for judicial candidates, merit selection for judges, and stricter recusal rules could help ensure that donors cannot buy justice.
Billy Corriher is the Director of Research for Legal Progress at the Center for American Progress.