Washington, D.C. – The recent explosion in judicial campaign cash and the growing use of “soft-on-crime” attack ads in state supreme court elections is impacting states’ criminal justice systems, according to a new report out today from the Center for American Progress. “Criminals and Campaign Cash” explores how, as state supreme court campaigns become more expensive, the growing number of political ads that distort facts about judges’ criminal rulings create political pressure for judges to rule in favor of the state and against criminal defendants. The findings of the report reveal a clear trend: As campaign cash increased, the courts studied began to rule more often in favor of prosecutors and against criminal defendants.
“Judges who are running for reelection do keep in mind what the next 30-second ad is going to look like,” said former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz, who attended an event today at the Center for American Progress to release the report.
To analyze the impact of campaign cash on criminal defendants, Billy Corriher, the author and Associate Director of Research for Legal Progress at CAP, examined state supreme courts that saw their first election in which the candidates and independent spenders spent more than $3 million, including the high courts in Illinois, Mississippi, Washington, Georgia, Wisconsin, Nevada, and West Virginia. Corriher then analyzed the outcomes of 4,684 rulings in criminal cases for a period starting five years before a given state’s first $3 million high-court election and ending five years after that election.
In 2004, when the Illinois judicial race broke campaign-spending records and voters were bombarded with attack ads featuring violent criminals, the Illinois high court ruled in favor of the prosecution in 69 percent of its criminal cases—an 18 percent increase over the previous year. Similarly, in Mississippi, there was a sharp 20 percent increase in rulings against criminal defendants in the two years after the state saw its first $3 million election.
The link between campaign cash and rulings in criminal cases were strongest in years that saw more ads produced and paid for by independent groups unaffiliated with the candidates. The one court in the study that saw no independent spending, the Nevada Supreme Court, did not exhibit a tendency to rule for the state during big-money elections. In contrast, in Washington and Georgia where the high courts saw a huge spike in independent spending, the percentage of rulings against criminal defendants peaked.
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