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The Human Costs of Special Interest Influence on State Courts

A North Carolina community’s recent battle over the harmful effects of a toxic leak raise troubling questions about whether courts can issue fair and evenhanded decisions when interest groups spend millions to get those judges elected.

  • Cody Cutting
February 17, 2015

When special interest groups spend money to influence judicial elections, it’s not only democracy that loses. A recent mini-documentary by the Center for American Progress shows that the flood of corporate interest money into the courts has real and immediate impacts on the individuals that rely on them for protection.

The documentary tells the story of a North Carolina community grappling with the effects of coal ash, a toxic byproduct produced by coal-fired power plants. Community members have found evidence that seepage from nearby coal ash ponds is contaminating their water supply and believe it may help to explain the area’s unusually high incidence rate of cancer. Although some North Carolinians have taken the power company, Duke Energy, to court to demand better environmental protections, the Center for American Progress points out, “Duke Energy has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the biggest spender in the two most recent North Carolina Supreme Court elections.” One would be hard-pressed to convince these affected citizens that the scales of justice remain balanced beneath the weight of such a sum.  


These concerned North Carolinians, like folks in other states, rely on the courts to stop illegal pollution. When interest groups with a direct stake in court decisions spend millions on judicial elections, it raises troubling questions about whether judicial decisions will be fair and evenhanded. 

Though perhaps less visible than their federal counterparts, state courts are especially important for protecting the rights of individuals. Approximately 95% of all cases are filed in state courts and environmental protections are but one of a number of ways that courts protect our rights. In fact, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer called state courts “the bread and butter of the judicial system.” “You will read in the newspaper more often about federal courts,” Justice Breyer said, “but the law that affects people, the trials that affect human beings are by and large in the state courts.”

Millions of Americans depend on state courts to determine cases critical to their wellbeing: the fate of the criminally accused; the provision of government benefits; the custody of their children; and whether they get to remain in their home or keep their car. Add to this the tremendous personal effect of rulings on everything from voting rights to educational funding, and it is clear that state courts impact vast areas of American life.  

State courts are not in an ideal position to deal with these challenges, embattled as they are with slashed funding, high levels of vacancies, and a dearth of advocates which further the responsibility placed on judges to ensure that judicial proceedings are fair.

Given the importance of state courts, escalating campaign spending and increased politicization should be seen as dangerous threats to individual rights guaranteed by the even rule of law.

Rampant growth in judicial campaign spending has led to an arms race among interest groups seeking to shape who sits on our courts. In North Carolina, the repeal of a decade-long public financing program last year corresponded with record-setting fundraising by supreme court candidates in 2014.

Unsurprisingly, this phenomenon coincides with a growing belief among the public and academic community that contributions may influence judges. Recent polling indicates that public confidence in the courts is bottoming out – a 2013 survey found nearly 90 percent of voters think that campaign contributions influence judges’ decisions.

Threats to fair and impartial courts are not just attacks on an ideal, but also on the security of all who call this country home. We need stronger rules to insulate judges from special interests who have the money and the opportunity to influence our courts. Only then will courts be trusted to guarantee individual rights according to the law and the law alone.