This article originally provided by
August 6, 2005
Cost of Judicial Races Stirs Reformers
By Kavan Peterson - In the wake of last year's costliest and
possibly nastiest elections ever for state Supreme Court justices, a few states
are drawing up changes to curb threats to the impartiality and fairness of their
At the state level, it isn't grueling Senate confirmation hearings at the
center of judicial battles, as is the prospect in store for U.S. Supreme Court
nominee John Roberts. It's soaring campaign spending and bare-knuckled special
At least one state -- West Virginia -- is considering scrapping judicial
elections altogether after state voters were bombarded by more than 4,000 TV
attack ads in 2004 during the most expensive high court race in state history.
West Virginia is one of 22 states that elect their high court justices in
"No one in West Virginia was pleased with the kind of campaigning we saw in last
year's Supreme Court race, no matter who their candidate was," said Tom Tinder,
executive director of the West Virginia state bar.
Two Illinois state Supreme Court candidates raised $9.3 million combined in
2004, spending more than candidates in 18 U.S. Senate races. Gov. Rod
Blagojevich (D) now is urging the state General Assembly to pass campaign
In Minnesota, judicial races may soon see a flood of money. A federal appeals
court on Aug. 2 struck down longstanding restrictions on judicial candidates
from aligning with political parties and seeking donations.
The ruling follows a U.S. Supreme Court decision that judicial candidates have a
right to voice their opinions on legal and political issues.
"Clearly there's a trend toward more money and more acrimony in judicial races,
and more judges taking sides on hot-button issues," said Indiana University law
professor Charles Geyh.
The Minnesota ruling likely will garner attention from the 13 other states that
hold nonpartisan elections to choose judges. And Minnesota likely will become
like eight states that now have partisan balloting -- Alabama, Illinois,
Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and West Virginia.
In 23 states, members of the high court are appointed by the governor with the
help of a committee, and in 16 of those states justices face uncontested
"retention elections" at the end of their terms.
In Maine, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Virginia and South Carolina, either the
governor or the legislature appoint justices.
Advocates are urging reforms before 2006 and 2008 elections, which are expected
to continue the trend of skyrocketing spending. In 2006, at least 43 state
Supreme Court seats will be up for election in 17 states.
North Carolina has been touted as a model for judicial reform since it adopted
the nation's first publicly financed elections for state Supreme Court
candidates. The system -- funded by state taxpayers who may voluntarily earmark
$3 through a state income tax check-off -- was used to elect two state Supreme
Court justices in 2004.
At least three other states -- Illinois, Montana and New Mexico -- are
considering similar systems.
Ohio agreed to require full disclosure of donors after last November's
elections. Other reforms being considered by states are publication of voter
education guides, capping contributions or creating clean-campaign commissions
to regulate political attack ads.
In 2004, state Supreme Court candidates nationwide raised nearly $47 million,
smashing previous spending records in nine of the 22 states that elected
justices, a recent report by the judicial watchdog groups Justice at Stake
Campaign, the Brennan Center for Justice and the Institute on Money in State
Business groups, lead by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, doubled contributions
from $8.4 million in 2002 to $15.8 million nationwide in 2004, exceeding for the
first time total contributions by trial lawyers. U.S. Chamber-backed campaigns
in a dozen states for 15 state Supreme Court candidates claimed a near clean
sweep, Justice at Stake reported.
"It's important for the public to understand the impact of lawsuit abuse on them
as a consumer and that was the focus of our campaigns," said Lisa A. Rickard,
president of the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform.
The Chamber spent more than $2.3 million to support the campaign of
Republican-backed Judge Lloyd Karmeier, who defeated Judge Gordon Maag for an
open state Supreme Court seat in Madison County, Ill. Trial lawyers and the
Illinois Democratic Party spent at least $2.8 million in support of Maag.
Madison County has earned a reputation for large tort awards, including a $10.1
billion award against tobacco giant Philip Morris last year. President George W.
Bush stopped there last February to urge Congress to pass tort reform.
Illinois Gov. Blagojevich has proposed campaign finance reforms for judicial
candidates including banning political contributions from corporations and
unions and capping donations from individuals and political parties.
Illinois and Alabama are the only two states that have no state campaign
contribution limits whatsoever for judicial races.
Other states that saw record-breaking sums spent included: Alabama - $7.4
million; Ohio - $6.3 million; Pennsylvania - $3.3 million; and Nevada - $3
But West Virginia's high court race had "the nastiest mudslinging in the history
of modern American court campaigns," said Justice at Stake executive director
Bert Brandenburg. Special interest groups spent at least $3.5 million in
addition to $2.8 million raised by the candidates.
In the election, incumbent Justice Warren McGraw was unseated by Judge Jim Rowe.
Of the nearly 10,000 attack ads that ran nationwide in 2004 state Supreme Court
races, nearly 43 percent appeared in West Virginia, including an ad that accused
McGraw of assigning a child rapist to work in a high school. That ad was
produced by And For The Sake of The Kids, which received $2.4 million from one
donor -- Don Blankenship, CEO and President of Massey Energy, one of the state's
largest coal companies.
In response to the slugfest, the West Virginia State Bar, a mandatory
association of all state lawyers, is investigating judicial reforms that include
eliminating judicial elections and instead appointing justices through a merit
selection process. The change would require a constitutional amendment and
Twenty-three states have adopted the merit system since Missouri created it in
1940, but the last state to do so was Utah in 1984.
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