State Courts, Money and Politics

In order to promote debate and understanding regarding the role state courts play in our system of democracy and the effects elections and other judicial selection systems can have on the administration of justice, the American Constitution Society is pleased to sponsor empirical research on these important topics. Skewed Justice and Justice at Risk look at how Citizens United and the proliferation of judicial campaign spending have changed the landscape of state courts. 

The explosion in spending on television attack advertisements in state supreme court elections accelerated by the Citizens United decision has made courts less likely to rule in favor of defendants in criminal appeals. State supreme court justices, already the targets of sensationalist ads labeling them “soft on crime,” are under increasing pressure to allow electoral politics to influence their decisions, even when fundamental rights are at stake.

A new report, Skewed Justice: Citizens United, Television Advertising and State Supreme Court Justices’ Decisions in Criminal Cases by Dr. Joanna Shepherd and Dr. Michael S. Kang looks at the increase in television attack ads on state judicial decision-making. This study’s two principal findings:

The more TV ads aired during state supreme court judicial elections in a state, the less likely justices are to vote in favor of criminal defendants. As the number of airings increases, the marginal effect of an increase in TV ads grows. In a state with 10,000 ads, a doubling of airings is associated on average with an 8 percent increase in justices’ voting against a criminal defendant’s appeal.

Justices in states whose bans on corporate and union spending on elections were struck down by Citizens United were less likely to vote in favor of criminal defendants than they were before the decision. Citizens United changed campaign finance most significantly in 23 of the states where there were prohibitions on corporate and union electioneering prior to the decision. In these states, the removal of those prohibitions after Citizens United is associated with, on average, a 7 percent decrease in justices’ voting in favor of criminal defendants.

Read the full report at the Skewed Justice website.



New data from independent researchers reveal growing influence of contributions on state supreme court judges. It has been 15 years since comprehensive data have been compiled and studied regarding the relationship between campaign contributions and state judicial elections.

Justice at Risk: An Empirical Analysis of Campaign Contributions and Judicial Decisions, by Joanna Shepherd, a law professor at Emory University, analyzes data from 2,345 business-related state supreme court published opinions from all 50 states in 2010-2012 and more than 175,000 contribution records, and reveals a growing relationship between money and how state supreme court justices rule in business-related matters.

ACS sponsored the study to discover whether more money being funneled into state supreme court elections is placing fair and impartial courts at risk.

The report focused on business contributions and their impact on state supreme court decisions because when direct and indirect contributions are taken into account, business interests dominate spending on judicial elections. Thus, while business interests and other groups contributed roughly equal amounts to candidates in state supreme court races from 2000-2009, business organizations dominated independent expenditures in those races, accounting for more than 90 percent of paid television advertising.

To learn more about this report—particularly the data that it draws from—visit the special reports and collaborations page of the National Institute for Money in State Politics. We strongly encourage interested parties to review the data, study the issue further, and contribute to and expand the important conversation about fair courts. NIMSP is the only nonpartisan, nonprofit organization revealing the influence of campaign money on state-level elections and public policy in all 50 states. The organization encourages transparency and promotes “independent investigation of state-level campaign contributions by journalists, academic researchers, public-interest groups, government agencies, policymakers, students and the public at large.”


Map of State Court Judicial Selection Methods