Washington, D.C. — On Thursday, the Republican State Leadership Committee, or RSLC, tried unsuccessfully to unseat three Tennessee justices vying for new terms on the state supreme court by funding attack ads in an opposition campaign. Although the RSLC’s attempts failed to remove the three justices, its campaign forced the justices to engage in an unprecedented fundraising effort, with campaign cash coming from donors who have a financial stake in the court’s rulings.
Today, a new report released by the Center for American Progress outlines how national conservative groups—including the RSLC and the Koch-affiliated Americans for Prosperity, or AFP—could come to dominate nonpartisan judicial elections across the country, erroding judicial independence with a flood of partisan campaign cash.
CAP’s report focuses on nonpartisan judicial elections in Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina—the three states that most recently changed from partisan to nonpartisan judicial elections. Meanwhile, conservative legislatures in these three states have passed controversial bills that are currently facing or will soon face legal challenges. National conservative groups, many of which are headquartered in Washington, D.C., are now inundating the nonpartisan judicial in Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina with partisan campaign cash; spending big to put conservative judges on the bench in order to protect statutes passed by conservative lawmakers.
“Until now, reforms in Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina had largely succeeded in keeping the courts free of political pressure,” said Billy Corriher, Director of Research for Legal Progress at CAP. “In an effort to insulate legislators’ conservative agendas from legal challenges, the RSLC and other right-wing groups are flooding these races with campaign cash. Partisan campaign cash leads to increasing pressure for judges to rule in ways that please wealthy donors.”
In North Carolina and Tennessee, the courts are the only branch of government not controlled by conservatives. However, as controversial legislation—such as Tennessee’s voter ID law and North Carolina’s legislative attacks on programs that help low- and moderate-income families—navigates through state courts, national conservative groups are pouring big money into putting conservative, pro-corporate judges on the bench.
The influx of conservative campaign cash is not confined to Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. With access to the national GOP fundraising network, groups such as the RSLC seem to be targeting states that have not seen much campaign cash in judicial elections in the past—a potential game changer for judicial elections nationwide.
In order to free courts from political pressure, CAP recommends the following reforms:
- Remove judges from the electoral process. The corrupting influence of money in judicial elections would not be a factor if judges were not elected.
- Adopt thoughtful and responsible measures to keep partisanship and big money out of state judicial elections. Public financing programs can restore public confidence in judges’ ability to rule independent of partisan pressure and big-money interests.
- Demand dark-money groups disclose their donors. Without adequate disclosure, voters are deprived of information that is vital in assessing the trustworthiness of out-of-state attack ads.
Read the report: Koch Brothers and D.C. Conservatives Spending Big on Nonpartisan State Supreme Court Races by Billy Corriher
- State Judicial Ethics Rules Fail to Address Flood of Campaign Cash from Lawyers and Litigants by Billy Corriher and Jake Paiva
- Supreme Court’s Campaign Finance Jurisprudence Displays a Naïve View of Political Corruption by Billy Corriher
- Partisan Judicial Elections and the Distorting Influence of Campaign Cash by Billy Corriher
- Voters Overwhelmingly Support Judicial Election Reforms by Billy Corriher
For more information or to speak to an expert, contact Katie Murphy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202.495.3628.