Judicial Races Now Targeted By Big-Money Interests

In judicial elections, Tennessee’s approach lets the people vote on appointments made by the state’s governor, and are usually low-key, small turnout affairs. In the final week before the August 7 retention election for three incumbent Tennessee Supreme Court justices, spending has surpassed one million, Justice at Stake has found.

“Tennessee has joined a growing club of states where courts face a tidal wave of spending and political pressure,” said Bert Brandenburg, Executive Director of Justice at Stake. “As judicial campaigns grow worse, money and partisan interests can’t be allowed to undercut impartial justice."

Overall election spending has skyrocketed over the past decade, and spending on judicial races has been ticking up across the county. The decision in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. FEC ruling has exacerbated the problem by allowing a stream of money into state and local elections, which are usually run on low funds.

“In 2012, outside groups spent $15.4 million on state supreme court races, and this year, the national total is likely to be lower. However, in several states, spending is expected to hit new highs,” wrote Josh Eidelson in Bloomberg Business

The infusion of money into judicial races is because big-money donors recognize the advantages over more competitive congressional or presidential elections. It’s relatively inexpensive for donors to make an impact in races, and the power of judges to rule on ideological issues like abortion, marriage equality, and others make them particularly appealing.

With justices on the ballot in the current campaign finance environment, it’s clear that judges will have to become inherently more political, raising money and getting help from the same interests who could appear before the court or have a stake in its decisions. Most Americans think their lawmakers are bought and paid for, the last thing we need is for that to happen to the judiciary.