Report: Record Special Interest Spending Threatens Judicial Integrity

A torrent of special interest money, often from secretive sources, is flooding state supreme court elections

Dec. 18, 2017 – Under the Constitution, our courts are obliged to provide equal justice regardless of wealth, status, or political connections. But at a time when courts are increasingly called upon to check the excesses of our political system, a new report from the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law and the National Institute on Money in State Politics finds that judicial integrity is increasingly under threat. A torrent of special interest money, often from secretive sources, is flooding state supreme court elections.

“The era of low-cost, sleepy state supreme court elections is over,” said Alicia Bannon, lead author of the newly released report, Who Pays for Judicial Races?: The Politics of Judicial Elections 2015-16, and senior counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “In an unfortunate parallel to political campaigns, judicial elections have become a major battleground for special interests and dark money, threatening the promise of effective and evenhanded justice. Judges are not politicians, and states need to act with urgency to address the threat big money poses to our judiciary’s vital role.”

The report is the only comprehensive look at all state supreme court elections in the latest cycle, 2015-16. Among the troubling new trends identified:

  • An unprecedented surge in dark money from secret sources in state supreme court elections – only 18 percent of outside spending in these elections could be categorized as fully transparent. While dark money spending had already become a major force in Congressional elections, this is the first time there is clear evidence that the same trend is impacting judicial elections.
  • More million-dollar races – 27 justices were elected in races where campaign spending exceeded $1 million, compared to a previous record of 19. More than half of all states with elected high courts have now had justices involved in races that cost more than $1 million.
  • Record-breaking outside spending – election expenditures made by interest groups, rather than campaign committees or political parties, comprised 40 percent of all spending in state supreme court elections in 2015-16, compared to just 29 percent in the previous cycle. Total outside spending by groups was a record $27.8 million.
  • Attacks on judicial decisions in television ads are increasingly becoming the norm – more than half of all negative ads aired during the 2015-16 cycle criticized judges for their rulings on the bench, often misleadingly.

The report provides a thorough review of these and other trends, including examples of what big spenders hope to achieve, the kinds of ads they fund, and the threats posed to the appearance and reality of evenhanded justice.

Thirty-eight states now hold elections for their supreme courts; 33 states held elections in 2015-16, the period covered by Who Pays for Judicial Races?: The Politics of Judicial Elections 2015-16. Those include large battleground states like Pennsylvania and North Carolina, the two states that saw the most spending in 2015-16.

View an interactive map on outside spending in 2015-16’s state supreme court elections.

Read the full report, Who Pays for Judicial Races?: The Politics of Judicial Elections 2015-16.

Visit the stand-alone website for our acclaimed Politics of Judicial Elections series.