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Outside Groups Dominate Spending in Judicial Elections, New Report Shows

Non-candidate spending in state high court elections nearly doubled as a share of total costs in 2009–10, compared to the previous off-year election, a new report shows.

October 27, 2011

Nearly 40 Percent of All Campaign Cash in 2009–10 Came From 10 Organizations

Contact: Charles Hall, Justice at Stake,, 202–588–9454;
Jeanine Plant-Chirlin, Brennan Center,, 646–292–8322;
Erik Opsal, Brennan Center,, 646–292–8356

Non-candidate spending in state high court elections nearly doubled as a share of total costs in 2009–10, compared to the previous off-year election, a new report shows.

This spending fueled a flood of non-candidate TV advertising, making this the costliest non-presidential election cycle ever for TV spending in judicial elections. 

Among the report’s key findings:

  • Nearly one-third of all funds spent on state high court elections came from non-candidate groups ($11.5 million out of $38 million in 2009–10).  
  • Nearly 40 percent of all funds spent on state high court races came from just 10 groups, including national special interest groups and political parties.  
  • Though outside groups paid for only 40 percent of total ads, they were responsible for 3 in 4 attack ads.

“The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2009–10,”  by the Justice at Stake Campaign, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics, is released as the presidential race is heating up—with millions in hidden outside spending pouring in through Super PACs and other outside groups—and shows that million-dollar judicial races are increasingly the norm across the country. The report is available at

”Too many judges owe their jobs to campaign money hidden from public view,” said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake. “Americans expect courts to be fair and impartial. They don’t want campaign cash to influence courtroom decisions.”

“The rise in spending by non-candidate groups means that many judicial candidates have become bystanders in their own campaigns, watching the action from the sidelines,” said report co-author Adam Skaggs. “We expect judges to be impartial and fair. Now with campaign laws weakening, citizens understandably worry that justice is for sale.” 

A new poll released today underscored widespread public concern that special-interest money may be undermining the impartiality of elected courts. In a poll of 1,000 voters, 83 percent said that campaign contributions have a “great deal” or “some” influence on a judge’s decisions; 93 percent believe judges should not hear cases involving major financial supporters; and 84 percent believe that all contributions to a judicial candidate should be “quickly disclosed and posted to a web site.”

The New Politics reports have monitored soaring election spending and other threats to the impartiality of state courts since 2000, showing that spending on state high court elections has more than doubled, from $83.3 million in 1990–1999 to $206.9 million in 2000–2009.

The latest report noted that spending in retention elections for judges exploded in 2010, representing 12.7 percent of overall spending, compared to only 1 percent over the entire previous decade. In Iowa’s retention election, three state Supreme Court justices were swept out of office over the court’s same-sex marriage decision.  Due to Iowa’s disclosure laws, voters could track the nearly $1 million spent to unseat the justices, but this is not the case in many states. In Wisconsin’s 2011 Supreme Court race, for example, outside groups spent a record amount on TV ads. This surge in secret spending has fundamentally transformed state Supreme Court elections.

The report also concluded that the 2010 elections were followed by dual threats to state courts. These included a “ferocious” attack in legislatures around the country against reforms designed to protect courts from special interests, and a widespread fiscal crisis in many states. The attacks included challenges to merit selection systems, assaults on public financing of judicial elections, and an unprecedented number of legislative threats to impeach state judges.

“As the second decade of the twenty-first century begins, state judiciaries are caught in a vise, squeezed on one hand by interest groups waging an unrelenting war to impose partisan political agendas on the bench and on the other by devastating fiscal pressures,” the report said. 

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The Justice at Stake Campaign is a nonpartisan, nonprofit campaign working to keep America’s courts fair and impartial. Justice at Stake and its 50-plus state and national partners educate the public, and work for reforms to keep politics and special interests out of the courtroom—so judges can protect our Constitution, our rights and the Rule of law. For more about Justice at Stake, go to, or

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law is a nonpartisan public policy and law institute that focuses on fundamental issues of democracy and justice. The Center works on issues including judicial independence, voting rights, campaign finance reform, racial justice in criminal law to Constitutional protection in the fight against terrorism. Part think tank, part public interest law firm, part advocacy group, the Brennan Center combines scholarship, legislative and legal advocacy, and communications to win meaningful, measurable change in the public sector. For more information, visit

The National Institute on Money in State Politics collects, publishes, and analyzes data on campaign money in state elections. The database dates back to the 1990 election cycle for some states and is comprehensive for all 50 states since the 1999–2000 election cycle. The Institute has compiled a 50-state summary of state supreme court contribution data from 1989 through the present, as well as complete, detailed databases of campaign contributions for all state high-court judicial races beginning with the 2000 elections.