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Despite High Spending, Special Interest Groups Not Entirely Successful in Supreme Court Elections

November 16, 2006

For Immediate Release
Thursday, November 16, 2006

Contact Information
James Sample of the Brennan Center for Justice, 212–992–8648
Jesse Rutledge of Justice at Stake, 202–588–9454

Despite High Spending, Special Interest Groups Not Entirely Successful in Supreme Court Elections

NEW YORK, NY Although pro-business special interest groups outspent progressive interest groups by more than nine to one on television advertising in Supreme Court elections this year, progressive groups had a higher electoral success rate than did their political foes, said two national watchdog groups. All five candidates who benefited from television advertising by progressive groups won election, but only 71 percent of candidates for whom pro-business groups sponsored ads won a seat on the bench.

The highest spending interest group, the Safety and Prosperity Coalitiona Georgia group that received the majority of its funding from the American Justice Partnership, an arm of the National Association of Manufacturersspent more than $1.3 million on advertisements that supported Mike Wiggins and attacked his opponent, incumbent Justice Carol Hunstein. The Republican Party spent an additional $550,000 to support Mr. Wiggins. Justice Hunstein sponsored her own advertising, spending $960,000. Despite being outspent almost two to one on the air, she defeated her opponent with 63 percent of the vote.

When special interest groups become so heavily involved in judicial races, citizens conclude that judges answer to constituencies rather than the law, said James Sample, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. It is heartening to see, however, that this year many voters were not swayed by special interest advertisements.

In Washington State, where special interest groups sponsored 100% of the 2006 advertising in the states supreme court races, two pro-business groups outspent the opposition almost four to one, but the candidate they supported, John Groen, lost by almost 10 percentage points to incumbent Chief Justice Gerry Alexander.

Pro-business groups did succeed in helping their chosen candidates win in Michigan, Ohio, and Alabama. In Michigan incumbent Justice Maura Corrigan won with the assistance of an ad sponsored by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. The Partnership for Ohios Futurewhich shares a mailing address and has key overlapping staff members with the Ohio Chamber of Commercesuccessfully assisted incumbent Justice Terrence ODonnell and Robert Cupp in election to the states highest court.

In Alabama, the American Taxpayers Alliancea group that receives at least some of its funding from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and electric utility companiesspent $721,236 to support incumbent Chief Justice Drayton Nabers and $271,844 to support incumbent Justice Lyn Stuart in their primary battles. Nabers won his primary, but lost to Sue Bell Cobb in the general election, in which he received no special interest assistance with television advertisements.

As hardball TV ads infect more judicial campaigns around the country, its time for every state that elects judges to take steps to reduce special interest pressure on the courts, said Bert Brandenburg, Executive Director of Justice at Stake.

Despite a last minute advertising campaign by a 527 group backed by trial attorneys and major Democratic Party donors, North Carolinas system of public financing of appellate court campaigns proved that court campaigns can remain civil and that candidates can run solid statewide campaigns without huge injections of money from national special interests. Five of six winners at the appellate level used the public financing option. North Carolinas public financing system also received a boost from an October ruling from a federal judge dismissing election-year challenges from critics, saying: In sum, plaintiffs have not shown a likelihood of success on the merits of any of their claims challenging [particular provisions] and North Carolinas public financing scheme as a whole.”