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The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2002

  • Deborah Goldberg
Published: May 6, 2004

Eighty-six percent of Amer­ica’s judges must stand for elec­tion. Thirty-eight states conduct elec­tions for their Supreme Courts (includ­ing partisan and non-partisan ballots, along with uncon­tested “reten­tion elec­tions” featur­ing up-or-down votes on an incum­bent).1 Some of these states—­like Alabama, Illinois, Michigan, Missis­sippi, Ohio, and Texas—are on their way to becom­ing peren­nial judi­cial battle­grounds where PACs, polit­ical parties, and special interests line up every other fall to elect judges who will pursue their narrow interests, not the public interest. Other states that elect judges have had an occa­sional taste of how bad things can get. A few states still enjoy court campaigns that are quiet and digni­fied.

But under the New Polit­ics of Judi­cial Elec­tions, none of these 38 states is safe. More special interests are target­ing Supreme Court races. More judges find them­selves trapped in a bad system, forced to raise money like ordin­ary politi­cians. More TV ads treat our courts of law like naked polit­ical prizes. Most of the public feels too ill informed to vote in judi­cial elec­tions, leav­ing a vacuum that special interests are happy to fill. And in 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court made it easier for judi­cial candid­ates to announce their posi­tions on hot-button issues, trig­ger­ing a “New Dating Game” that gives special interests new powers to pres­sure judi­cial candid­ates— and tempts judi­cial candid­ates to pander to special interests or face their wrath.