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A Tide of Ad Spending Undermines Judicial Impartiality

Seth Endo

Yesterday, Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice released their analysis of campaign spending in the 2014 state judicial elections, providing a detailed look at spending on TV ads. They found almost $14 million was spent on such elections, far surpassing several state records. And about $5 million was spent by outside groups on TV ads targeting state Supreme Court races.

Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center also assessed the efficacy of the biggest outside spender, the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC). The RSLC spent more than $3 million on judicial elections this year and its advertising campaigns went so far as to accuse a judge of going easy on child molesters. While none of the RSLC’s efforts to unseat judges were ultimately successful, this democratic check on big money does not tell the whole story. 

The influence of money in judicial campaigns is not just about who gets elected—it also is about what elected judges do when they are politically vulnerable to large outside spenders. And, in the aggregate, the rise of campaign spending in judicial elections results in systemic biases that harm politically disfavored communities. Accordingly, the 2014 election results should not lead to complacency when, as detailed in the Justice at Stake/Brennan Center report, the campaigns showed such a significant rise in spending this year. 

Advocates must continue to work to establish sensible policies that improve the fair and impartial nature of judicial processes. In the long-term, this might mean reframing the current campaign finance jurisprudence to permit commonsense reforms that “make democracy work for all Americans.” In the short-term, although the Roberts Court has been hostile to many campaign finance regulations that seek to ensure the responsiveness and accountability of elected officials by limiting the influence of big money donors and spenders, a number of avenues for reform remain, including: