Campaign fundraising for elections to the nation's top state courts has doubled to more than $200 million over the last decade, fueled partly by super-spending individuals and groups investing big money to influence down-ticket races, according to a study released Monday.
Between 2000 to 2009, campaign spending for state Supreme Court posts surged to $206.9 million compared with $83.3 million in the previous decade, the report showed. It also found 20 of the 22 states with Supreme Court contests had their costliest-ever campaigns.
"These corporations and trial lawyers have millions of millions of dollars at stake, and they feel if they can just spend a few million dollars to influence the outcome, it's worth it," said James Sample, a Hofstra Law School professor who was the study's lead author. "We're sort of playing with fire when you're putting this much money into our courts."
The study also analyzed 29 elections in the 10 states with the most costly judicial campaigns, finding that the top five spenders in each election poured an average of $473,000 into the contests. The remaining contributors averaged about $850 apiece.
In some states, a few special interests dominated judicial election spending, a trend that could grow after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in January to end the ban on election spending by corporations and unions. One example was the $3 million spent by West Virginia coal executive Don Blankenship to help elect a justice in 2004.
While partisan races drew the most cash -- about $154 million over the decade -- some $51 million was spent on nonpartisan races.
The report was prepared by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, the nonpartisan organization Justice at Stake in Washington, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics, based in Helena, Mont.
The groups are worried about the amount of money being spent on judicial campaigns, but do not favor a particular alternative.
The report's foreword by ex-Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor advocates the system used in her home state of Arizona, where the governor appoints candidates nominated by a bipartisan commission. Voters then hold judges accountable in "retention" elections.
"This crisis of confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary is real and growing," she wrote. "Left unaddressed, the perception that justice is for sale will undermine the rule of law that courts are supposed to uphold."
Several states have taken small steps toward reforms. Wisconsin lawmakers enacted public financing for judicial races, joining North Carolina and New Mexico. And West Virginia's legislature adopted a pilot public financing program. The Michigan Supreme Court adopted tough recusal rules for judges.
Sample, the law professor, noted that it's been two decades since a state scrapped a system of electing judges and moved toward an appointment system.
"States are taking the initial steps," he said. "But for all the talk, voters are very reluctant to give up their right to vote in judicial elections."