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Oct
2013
30

JUDGE LOOTY: Special Interest Spending on Judicial Campaigns Up 42% from ’08 to ’12

“It’s the biggest threat to democracy that nobody’s heard of.” ~ Bert Brandenburg, Executive Director of Justice at StakeM

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A recently published report, “The New Politics of Judicial Elections,” shows that since 2010’s Citizens United vs. FEC decision an unprecedented amount of money has been spent on judicial campaigns, threatening the integrity of the American judicial system at its core.  

The numbers are alarming: $56.4 million was spent on high court elections in the 2011-12 cycle with $33.7 million going into state Supreme Court campaign TV ads, a 42 percent jump from the ’08 campaign. And the nature of the commercials is just as discouraging.  Far from informational, these out-of-state money-driven slanderfests paint candidates in the worst possible light, destroying peoples’ reputations. Via the Daily Beast:

Television ads aimed at pressuring judges and skewed toward crime are reminiscent of the infamous Willie Horton ad from the 1988 presidential campaign. “The Willie Horton ad was so stigmatized at the national level because of race baiting, yet they have become a new normal at the judicial level,” says Brandenburg.

The report cites a rematch in Kentucky between state Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott and Court of Appeals Judge Janet Stumbo, whom he had defeated in 2004. Using flashing images of black murderers and pregnant white women, the Scott ad, which aired 71 times before the election, referred to murder convictions that Stumbo had voted to reverse. It is among the ads on the report’s “Hall of Shame,” which features candidates for the high courts in Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin accused of “sympathy for rapists,” volunteering to “free a terrorist” (as co-counsel for a Guantanamo Bay detainee), denying benefits to a cancer patient, and protecting sex offenders.

Not surprisingly, some of the biggest spenders in these judicial campaigns are household election-flooders:

Seven of the top 10 “Super Spenders” the report identifies are conservative business groups, including the Koch Brothers and Americans for Prosperity. The latter spent $155,000 on direct mail and television advertising in Florida in an effort to unseat three justices who had voted to reject a ballot proposal that would have amended the state constitution to resist the Affordable Care Act. Bolstered by fundraising campaigns of their own with money raised principally from lawyers, the three justices retained their seats. Still, the trend is disturbing, says Brandenburg: “In an arms race, whichever side you come out, you vow to spend more. It creates a system where people fear justice is for sale.”

Americans for Prosperity spent a quarter of a million dollars in North Carolina in the 2012 election, the largest expenditure ever in a judicial campaign. Another group, the conservative North Carolina Judicial Coalition, spent $2.9 million on TV ads, the first time a super PAC had ventured into a judicial election. “What Citizens United did was help create an infrastructure that is now bleeding into state races,” says Bannon.

The only positive to come from these revelations is the low rate of success being witnessed by the prospective influencers. Popular consciousness about campaign spending and its inherent problems may be rising slowly, but the issue remains unsexy enough to keep campaign finance reform on the national back burner. If it is not addressed and the handcuffs of misinformation are simply passed from presidential campaign to governor’s race to local judicial battle, the American system of checks and balances, as we knew it, will be no more.

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