Judicial campaigns and elections

  • April 10, 2017

    by Caroline Fredrickson

    Soon after President Donald Trump nominated Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, the Judicial Crisis Network (JCN)—a conservative secret-money group that spends millions of dollars on ads attacking judges—promised to spend up to $10 million in support of his nomination. Representing a major attack on the fairness and impartiality of our judicial branch, this same group, among many other organizations, has been increasingly involved with big-money efforts to help elect or attack their favored state supreme court judges—all behind a curtain of secrecy.

    When asked directly by Sen. Whitehouse about why these groups are so interested in supporting his nomination, Gorsuch responded, “You’d have to ask them.” For a Supreme Court candidate, this betrays an inexcusable lack of understanding and concern for the menacing role that secret money has played in this Supreme Court nomination process and in many of our state judicial elections. “We don’t know because it is dark money,” Sen. Whitehouse countered a frustrated Judge Gorsuch about the secret money group, “I can’t [ask them]. I don’t know who they are. It’s just a front group.”

    The $10 million was in addition to the $7 million that JCN already spent in its effort to distort the record of Chief Judge Merrick Garland, Obama’s Supreme Court nominee who Republicans and JCN itself previously praised.

    At the state level, the group recently spent big to help persuade Arkansas voters to reject judicial candidates who JCN argued would favor injured individuals over corporate defendants. JCN spent far more money than any of the candidates. One of its ads criticized the Arkansas Chief Justice for a unanimous ruling to strike down a voter ID law, which JCN claimed could lead to “illegal immigrants voting.” Arkansas Business said the JCN ads should be “categorized as lies.” And in 2012, JCN ran a revolting last-minute ad attacking a Michigan Supreme Court candidate, exploiting the tragic death of a U.S. soldier to lie about the judicial candidate’s record. A recent report from the Michigan Campaign Finance Network found that $3.4 million was spent on the 2016 supreme court race there, with 50 percent of the money from secret sources.

  • April 5, 2017
    Guest Post

    by Nat Stern, John W. & Ashley E. Frost Professor, Florida State University College of Law

    The ability of politicians to utter falsehoods with legal impunity is evident today to perhaps an unprecedented degree. Less appreciated is that the overwhelming majority of judges in America qualify as politicians in the basic sense that they are chosen through some form of popular election. In the case of candidates for judicial office, however, nearly half of states codes contain a “misrepresent clause” barring deliberately false factual statements by judicial candidates.

    The basis for this ban is understandable and even admirable. In contrast to legislators and elected executive officers, judges are expected to serve as detached and impartial arbiters of the law. Dishonest campaign tactics may then be viewed as impairing the administration of justice, tarnishing the public image of the judiciary or even revealing a disqualifying character trait. Nevertheless, the misrepresent clause—as opposed to generally applicable bans on certain kinds of dishonesty like defamation and fraud—probably violates the First Amendment. This conclusion derives mainly from the confluence of three Supreme Court doctrines: stringent protection of political speech, application of this doctrine to restrictions on judicial campaign speech and refusal to regard false expression as categorically unprotected.

    It is a commonplace that unhindered political speech is essential to self-government and therefore lies at the heart of the First Amendment. Thus, the Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed the privileged place of political expression in the hierarchy of First Amendment freedoms. Nor has the Court left any doubt that political campaign speech falls squarely within this protection. Accordingly, the Court has subjected restrictions on political expression to rigorous scrutiny.

  • January 30, 2015

     
    Five years after the Supreme Court in Citizens United struck down restrictions on corporate spending in elections, the American political landscape has become one where influence can be bought and the voices of wealthy donors drown out other perspectives. 

    Almost immediately after the Citizens United decision, outside spending in elections spiked.  Over the next five years, it more than doubled.  Super PACs used hefty budgets to produce attack ads against candidates who were not to their liking—affecting outcomes in not only political races, but also in state judicial elections. 

    Judges perceived as being unfriendly to PACs’ interests were attacked under the pretense of being “soft on crime,” resulting in measurably harsher treatment of criminal defendants by state supreme court justices.  Further, the last five years have seen a flood of dark money into elections.  As many commentators have noted, donor secrecy breeds mistrust and, possibly, corruption.

    Americans expect the courts to be fair and impartial, but as special interest groups spend more and more money to influence courts, public faith in these institutions is waning.  Soon, the Supreme Court will have to decide how important judicial independence is to our justice system in Williams-Yulee vs. The Florida Bar, a case that could, if wrongly decided, further diminish public trust in the courts.  For those concerned about Citizens United, Williams-Yulee, or the corrosive impact of unrestrained special interest spending on our democracy, see the following ACS resources:

    Skewed Justice: Citizens United, Television Advertising and State Supreme Court Justices’ Decisions in Criminal Cases, Joanna Shepherd and Michael S. Kang

    Five Years Later, Citizens United Wreaks Havoc on Our Democracy, Fred Wertheimer, ACSblog

    The Top Five Myths About the Democracy For All Amendment, John Bonifaz, ACSblog

    Supreme Court Briefing: Williams-Yulee vs. The Florida Bar, Video

    Interview with Professor Tracey George on Williams-Yulee, Video

    Democracy and Our State Courts: Fighting Back After Citizens United, Video

     

  • December 29, 2014

    by Jeremy Leaming

    In an interview for Montana Public Radio, retired state supreme court Justice James C. Nelson urged more people to pay attention to the deluge of money being spent by politically conservative interests to shape the makeup of state courts, which hear and decide thousands of matters every year affecting all parts of our lives and communities.

    Nelson (pictured), speaking with MTPR News Director Eric Whitney, cited studies sponsored by ACS that show effects of the flooding of money from, primarily business interests into state judicial elections – 89 percent of all state court judges face voters in some type of election. And the financial impact, driven by politics or ideology, on the judicial system is not good.

    In the interview, which has aired over the last several days and runs a bit longer than 8 minutes, Nelson focused on research released in October by ACS, Skewed Justice. It showed, among other items, a disconcerting impact special interests are having on the outcome of criminal justice cases. (Nelson also noted the 2013 ACS-sponsored report, Justice at Risk as offering more evidence of the detrimental effect money is having on state supreme courts, which should be impartial.)

    Nelson, citing Skewed Justice, said it revealed that the more TV ads aired during state supreme court judicial elections, the less likely justices are to vote in favor of criminal defendants. Thus, special interests or as Nelson calls them dark forces, are at least putting a thumb on the scale of justice, so-to-speak. One that only the privileged in this country has the means to do.

    Listen to the interview here and read Nelson’s ACSblog post from earlier this year on the Supreme Court cases that have altered precedent, weakening a long tradition of campaign finance regulations in elections.

    [picture by Eric Whitney]

  • October 24, 2014

    by David Lyle

    Earlier this week, ACS issued a groundbreaking report looking into the influence money, and in particularly, the television attack ads it buys in state judicial elections, has on rulings by state judges. The report, Skewed Justice: Citizens United, Television Advertising, and State Supreme Court Justices’ Decisions in Criminal Cases, is a compilation of data from over 3,000 criminal appeals decided in state supreme courts in 32 states from 2008 to 2013 and the findings might surprise you.

    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.

    Citizens United (which removed regulatory barriers to corporate electioneering) has fundamentally changed the politics of state judicial elections. Outside interest groups, often with high-stakes economic interests or political causes before the courts, now routinely pour millions of dollars into state supreme court elections. These powerful interests understand the important role that state supreme courts play in American government, and seek to elect justices who will rule as they prefer on priority issues such as environmental and consumer protections, marriage equality, reproductive choice and voting rights. Although their economic and political priorities are not necessarily criminal justice policy, these sophisticated groups understand that “soft on crime” attack ads are often the best means of removing from office justices they oppose.

    This study’s two principal findings: