For Judges, Campaign Cash Speaks Louder than Ideology

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A new study compares contributions from big business to state supreme court rulings in more than 2,000 cases from 2010 to 2012, and it concludes that “a justice who receives half of his or her contributions from business groups would be expected to vote in favor of business interests almost two-thirds of the time.” This correlation was strongest in the handful of states with partisan high court elections. Republican judges receive much more funding from big business, and in general, they are more likely to vote in favor of corporate litigants.

The study found, however, “a stronger relationship” between corporate campaign cash and the votes of Democratic justices. “Judges who are not ideologically or otherwise predisposed to vote in favor of business interests might….cast votes in cases either to obtain financial support from those business interests for their future campaigns, or at least to reduce incentives for….attacks funded by business interests.”

This discrepancy mirrors the findings of a 2007 study by Madhavi McCall and Michael McCall of Texas Supreme Court rulings between 1994 and 1997. In general, the Republican-controlled court was much more likely to favor defendants over plaintiffs. But plaintiffs who made a campaign contribution received “more than double the rate of support” among the justices.

These results suggest that campaign contributions can be very effective in persuading judges to vote against their ideological inclination. Campaign cash speaks louder than a judge’s predisposition to favor individual plaintiffs or corporate defendants.

Shepherd’s study, sponsored by the American Constitution Society, found that the correlation between corporate campaign contributions and rulings has grown stronger since the late 1990’s, as spending on high court elections has exploded. In a series of cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down limits on independent spending in political campaigns and limited states’ options to curb the influence of campaign cash.

The study noted that corporate-funded groups are taking advantage of these loopholes in campaign finance laws, and their “dominance of television advertising has steadily increased over time.” Because voters often lack knowledge about judicial candidates, these ads can be very effective at defining the candidates in the minds of voters.

There is no reason to think that the role of money in judicial elections will subside. Until voters demand reforms to curb the influence of money on the judiciary, Americans will have even more judges that favor corporate defendants over individuals seeking to hold them accountable.

Billy Corriher is Associate Director of Research for Legal Progress.