As interest groups have funneled more and more secret spending into elections of all kinds, judicial races have been no exception. In states with competitive elections for judgeships, spending has increased exponentially, moving judicial candidates to campaign in ways that may threaten their neutrality and turn them into politicians.
A new investigation by the Center for Public Integrity has found that in ten states with high-profile state Supreme Court elections, at least a third of spending by independent groups came from organizations based outside of the state, primarily in Washington, D.C.
In North Carolina, where more than half of independent groups’ spending to influence the election came from outside the state, a last-minute attack ad that cost a judicial candidate his lead in the polls was funded by Justice for All NC, a group that got 68 percent of its money from the DC-based Republican State Leadership Committee. North Carolina has a public financing system to avoid explosive campaign spending, but outside advocacy spending largely rendered that system irrelevant, CPI reports.
The investigation is “necessarily incomplete” because groups are not required to disclose particular types of spending, but a search of multiple sources revealed that rife spending on ads and other outside advocacy frequently comes from groups with a national influence.
As judicial elections spending continues to break new records nationwide, a recent Center for American Progress study found that states with the most money pouring into judicial elections saw individuals losing to corporations in the vast majority of cases. Another new study by the American Constitution Society found a correlation between political contributions and judicial outcomes, particularly for judges who are not otherwise inclined to favor corporate interests.
Merit selection systems, in which judges are selected by a committee and subject to subsequent retention elections, mitigate the immense political influence and corrupting pressure that accompanies a competitive election, although even retention elections can be vulnerable if campaign spending is left unchecked.