A new report has revealed that special-interest spending on state supreme court elections has more than doubled in the past 10 years to $207 million, prompting former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to write in its introduction that “three out of every four Americans believe that campaign contributions affect courtroom decisions [and] this crisis of confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary is real and growing. Left unaddressed, the perception that justice is for sale will undermine the rule of law that the courts are supposed to uphold.”  

Titled “The New Politics of Judicial Elections, 2000-2009: Decade of Change,” the report was prepared by the nonpartisan policy groups Brennan Center for Justice, National Institute on Money in State Politics and Justice at Stake Campaign. Their research reveals that total spending in supreme court elections rose from $6 million in the early 1990s to more than $45 million during the 2008 elections. States ranked the highest in supreme-court fundraising include Alabama, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas.  

According to the report, “a broad portrait of a grave and growing challenge to the impartiality of our nation’s courts” include the following trends: (i) “the explosion in judicial campaign spending, much of it poured in by ‘super spender’ organizations seeking to sway the courts”; (ii) “the parallel surge of nasty and costly TV ads as a prerequisite to gaining a state Supreme Court seat”; (iii) “the emergence of secretive state and national campaigns to tilt Supreme Court elections”; (iv) “litigation about judicial campaigns, some of which could boost special-interest pressure on judges”; and (v) “growing public concern about the threat to fair and impartial justice—and support for meaningful reforms.”

The Center for Competitive Politics has reportedly claimed that complaints about spending on judicial races have been exaggerated and that states which hold judicial elections should not limit the free speech of voters or candidates. “Part of our argument is that there isn’t a different First Amendment standard for judicial campaigns,” a center spokesperson was quoted as saying. See The Washington Post, August 16, 2010.