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Archive for the 'Merit Selection News' Category

Feb 24 2015

John Oliver Explains Why Judicial Elections are Harmful for American Democracy

On this week’s episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver took on the topic of judicial elections, referring to them as a “horrible spectacle.” John Oliver began his segment with a discussion of Alabama’s Chief Justice Roy Moore, who has ordered state judges to ignore a federal ruling that would allow same-sex couples to marry. Justice Moore was elected to his position, as Oliver points out.

39 states in the U.S. hold judicial elections. No other country holds judicial elections on the same scale as the United States, except Bolivia, as Oliver points out. Most judges in the U.S. run unopposed.

One of the major problems with judicial elections that Oliver discusses involves advertising. Studies have shown that judges are likely to rule more harshly against criminal defendants to protect themselves from future judicial attack ads that may suggest they are “too soft on crime.” The studies show judges change their behavior in election years and are tougher on crime. Oliver says, “That’s terrifying. You shouldn’t be sitting in a prison going, ‘How did you get 15 months for public urination?’ ‘Well, you know, it was October in an election year. I should have known what I was getting into.’”

Another problem John Oliver takes issue with is lawyers donating to judicial campaigns, which he describes as “the definition of a conflict of interest.” Judges also often accept money from business and special interest groups, which can lead to them voting in favor of those groups in the future (on the Ohio Supreme Court, judges on average vote in favor of those who contribute to them 70% of the time, with one judge voting in favor of his contributors 91% of the time). Oliver is truly disturbed by what he describes as the “shaking down” of lawyers for campaign donations, and the increasing presence of PACs and SuperPACs in judicial elections following the Citizens’ United decision. The result is extremely political elections in what should be a fair and impartial system.

Oliver also took on Philadelphia Traffic Court Judge Willie Singletary in his segment. Oliver showed a 2007 video of Singletary in which he is shown asking a crowd to donate to his campaign in order for them to receive favorable treatment in traffic court. Oliver points out that Singletary was ultimately removed from the bench for showing nude photos of himself to a Traffic Court cashier, calling it a “2012 judicial penis debacle.” Singletary was convicted of lying to the FBI in the recent case regarding Philadelphia Traffic Court Judges accepting bribes in exchange for special treatment in traffic court.

Oliver correctly points out many of the major issues with judicial elections in this country. These issues are particularly relevant in Pennsylvania, which has entirely partisan judicial elections and has encountered numerous judicial scandals recently. Oliver ends his clip by saying, “Faith in a strong, independent judiciary is essential in civilized society. If we’re going to keep electing judges, we may have to alter our idea of what justice is.” He continues, “In fact, at the very least to be a bit more representative, we should tweak the blindfolded lady holding scales, to put a tip jar in her hand and a give her a winking emoji for a face.”

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Mar 17 2014

One Step Forward for Minnesota and Merit Selection

This week, Minnesota has gotten one step closer to moving to a merit selection system.  In doing so, the state has progressed towards finally putting to bed the partisan-politics-laced, big-money­-fueled judicial election system in their state.  The very same election system which in recent years has plagued judiciaries across the the country and eroded the the public trust in our court system.


So, what happened?  The Minnesota Senate Subcommittee on Elections approved the proposed constitutional amendment to change the state’s judicial election system to a merit selection system and sent it up for a full vote of the Senate Rules Committee.  Specifically, “the proposal calls for gubernatorial appointment of judges from a list of finalists recommended by a merit selection commission, a retention (up or down) election if the judge seeks to stay on the bench, and nonpartisan evaluation of judges’ performance by an independent performance evaluation commission.”  Last year, the House version of the bill was approved in the House Elections Committee and remains pending in the House Judiciary Committee.


Under Minnesota’s current judicial election system, races for judicial seats have become policy battlegrounds, with judicial candidates campaigns’ being bankrolled by corporations, lobbyist groups, trial attorneys, and political action committees.  These are the very groups and individuals who often appear before the these courts.  Obviously, this doesn’t do much for the the public perception of impartiality in judicial decision-making.  With fundraising in the millions, judicial elections now have taken on the character of legislative races, with candidates employing the use of attack ads and running on platforms.  In support of the constitutional amendment, former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Eric Magnuson when addressing legislators said, “A judge can’t run on a platform. That’s antithetical to what a judge does.  A judge decides cases based on the law and facts in front of him or her.”


Like Minnesota, Pennsylvania has a constitutional amendment (House Bill 1848) making its way through the state legislature that would replace judicial elections for all judges to a merit selection system to choose statewide judges.  Backed with bipartisan support, the bill would help ensure that only the most experienced and qualified judges serve on the bench.  A merit selection system is necessary to take judges out of the business of fundraising and partisan politics out of our courtrooms. In doing so, this would be a big step toward restoring the public’s faith in a fair and impartial judiciary, untainted by the bias generated by the current partisan judicial election system.

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Feb 25 2014

Upcoming Illinois Retention Election Reminds Us Why Merit Selection Is Needed Now More Than Ever

Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier, whose 2004 campaign race to unseat Appellate Court Justice Gordon Maag raised more than $9 million between the two campaigns, is up for retention election in November.  As the retention election approaches it conjures up memories of just how much of a game changer his Illinois judicial election was ten years ago.

The 2004 race between Justice Karmeier and Justice Maag was the most expensive campaign for a state Supreme Court seat in American history and completely changed the fundraising landscape in judicial elections nationwide.  Justice Karmeier’s campaign raised $4.8 million and relied heavily on in-kind contributions from Republican organizations and Chamber of Commerce groups.  Justice Maag’s campaign amassed $4.3 million dollars receiving a multitude of donations from various political action committees, lobbyist groups, and trial lawyers.  And as the money came rolling in, so did the mud slinging and attack ads by the candidates’ supporters.

“The Karmeier race turned out to be a harbinger of a trend that unfortunately has spread across the nation,” said Bert Brendenburg, Executive Director of Justice at Stake.  This “trend” has had the effect of shifting the focus of judicial elections away from getting the most qualified judges on the bench, to instead being more centered on which candidate is the best campaigner or fundraiser.  The repercussion of which has been a growing perception among the public that judges are politicians first, and impartial interpreters of the law second.  This erases the distinction between judges and officials who serve in the executive and legislative branches.

The 2004 Illinois Supreme Court election is the epitome of how flawed the partisan judicial selection system is and why the transition to a merit selection needs to happen now.  A merit selection system for electing judges ensures that only the most experienced and qualified candidates reach the bench.  It permits judges to carry out their judicial role free from improper influence from popular opinion, private partisan interests, and campaign contributors, and allows them to decide cases based on the facts and the law.


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Nov 21 2013

Bipartisan Duo Introduces Merit Selection Legislation

The two major political parties are sharply divided on many issues. Some issues are “Republican.” Others are “Democratic” But merit selection is neither. As stated by Rep. Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster), “merit selection transcends political ideology. It’s Republican. It’s Democrat. It’s bipartisan.”

At a news conference announcing legislation to institute merit selection at the appellate court level, Rep. Cutler was joined by Rep. Brian Sims (D-Philadelphia) and Rep. Pamela DiLissio (D-Montgomery). Lynn Marks, Executive Director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, and Susan Carty, President of the Pennsylvania League of Women Voters, were also in attendance.

The merit selection resolution was introduced and referred to the House Judiciary Committee on Monday, November 18, 2013. The text of the bill is available here.

“There are no red herrings here. Both parties are supporting [the merit selection legislation] because it is really good policy,” said Rep. Sims.

Merit selection is good policy because it doesn’t make sense to use a completely partisan process to select people for a job that is nonpartisan. As stated by Marks, “justice is not conservative, Republican, liberal, or Democrat.” Instead, justice is all about “ensuring that all Pennsylvanians can come to court knowing their cases will be heard by fair and qualified judges.”

According to Rep. Cutler, this goal is frustrated by judicial elections because the political process has rewarded name recognition and the ability to raise money rather than credentials. Rep. Sims added that spending in judicial elections is very high and “three-quarters of Pennsylvanians think that judges are [influenced] by campaign contributions.”

Compounding these problems is the fact that media coverage of judicial elections is sparse, and “because of all the pressures of the day and the fact that people are busy, most voters cannot do their homework on judges,” Rep. DiLissio commented. As a result, voters often cast their ballots based on a variety of factors that have nothing to do with the candidates’ qualifications. For instance, people commonly vote for candidates that share their political affiliation or are from their hometown. Voters will also frequently vote for candidates that have familiar sounding names. This turns judicial elections into a bit of a crap-shoot, and the selection of judges should not be left to chance.

Under merit selection, there would be an exhaustive vetting process. A 15-member bipartisan citizens’ nominating commission would review the qualifications of prospective judges, including their legal experience, reputation for ethical behavior, and fairness. The governor would then nominate one candidate for each open appellate court seat from a short list created by the commission, and the Senate would confirm or reject the nominees. Confirmed judges would serve a four year term before facing the voters in an uncontested retention election, and they would run for retention every ten years thereafter.

It is important to remember that only the people can change how judges in Pennsylvania are chosen. Any change in the current system must be approved by the voters in a constitutional referendum, so the people have the final say. But the people should vote to approve merit selection because “the election system has proven to fuel the public’s lack of trust, faith, and confidence [in the judiciary]. Pennsylvanians have the right to have their faith restored,” said Rep. DiLissio.



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Nov 19 2013

Let’s Stop Playing “Pin the Tail on the Donkey (or Elephant)”

According to a recent editorial in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the judicial elections that just took place were “another game of pin the tail on the donkey (or the elephant).” Due to limited information about the candidates, many voters were forced to rely on “vague name recognition, ethnicity of names or political affiliation- all of which have little to do with finding the best judge.”


Making matters worse, voter turnout was extremely low- in Philadelphia, the preliminary figure is 11.5 percent. The turnout in many other counties is believed to be in the single digits, and it has been estimated that only 14 to 17 percent of all eligible voters statewide cast ballots. Unfortunately, low voter turnout is the rule rather than the exception.


As stated by the Post-Gazette editorial board, there is a better way to select judges. That way is merit selection.


Under a merit selection system, a knowledgeable panel of lawyers and non-lawyers would thoroughly vet judicial candidates. For instance, they would review applications and writing samples, hold interviews and public hearings, and conduct background checks. The governor would then appoint nominees from lists prepared by the commission, and the Senate would confirm or reject them. After four years, appointees would face the voters in retention elections, and they would run for retention every ten years after that.


Reps. Brian Cutler (R-Lancaster) and Brian Sims (D-Philadelphia) have sponsored a resolution to institute such a system in Pennsylvania. The Post-Gazette applauded its introduction, stating that “it’s past time that something was done. The expenses of appellate court races is out of hand and all the money brings with it the threat of corruption.” Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts joins the Post-Gazette in commending the resolution.

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Oct 11 2013

State Legislators: No More Excuses. Support this Bill

The Philadelphia Daily News editorial board summed it up perfectly:
“[Judicial elections are an] unseemly process whereby judges now grovel for the ever-escalating fortunes necessary to campaign for office, arriving on the bench indebted to donors, including lawyers who may appear before them on legal matters.”
Brian Sims (D-Philadelphia) and Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) want to

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change this “unseemly process”- they plan on introducing a merit selection resolution in the legislature.
The legislature has considered merit selection resolutions before, but it has turned them down. But things are different now. As the editorial pointed out, numerous scandals have shaken the public’s faith in the elected judiciary. For example, a state Supreme Court justice was recently convicted on campaign corruption charges; the Philadelphia Traffic Court was dissolved in the wake of the ticket-fixing scandal; and a current Supreme Court justice is being investigated by the FBI. Additionally, the Kids for Cash scandal is a not-to-distant memory. Unfortunately, this is far from an exhaustive list of recent judicial misconduct.
In addition to growing public mistrust of the judiciary, the Democrats and the Republicans appear to be now less divided on the issue of merit selection. According to the editorial, this is illustrated by the “wonderfully odd couple” that has sponsored the bill.
Brian Sims is an openly gay member of the state House of Representatives, and he actively works towards civil rights for the LGBT community, particularly the legalization of same-sex marriage. Bryan Cutler, on the other hand, is a pro-life proponent and a lifetime NRA member. He has even been honored by the American Conservative Union for his “exceptional” conservative voting record in the House.
“This admirable union of political opposites is meant to underscore the fact that merit selection isn’t a liberal issue or a conservative one,” the Daily News editorial stated. Instead, it is an “effort to inspire public confidence in the bench by removing the corrupting influences of money and partisan politics involved in electing judges.”
The editorial ended with a simple message:
“State legislators: no more excuses. Support this bill.”


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Apr 17 2013

"Judges must be free to follow the law, not popular opinion."

Former Hawaiian Governor Linda Lingle declared her support for merit selection and former Pennsylvania Governors Edward G. Rendell, Thomas J. Ridge, Dick Thornburgh, and George Leader in a letter to the Wall Street Journal.

Governor Lingle writes in response to the Journal’s editorial “Judges, Politics, and George Soros,” which criticized merit selection and efforts in Pennsylvania to establish it, and the four former Pennsylvania Governors’ response, which we covered here.

Hawaii uses merit selection to appoint judges. In her letter, Governor Lingle registers her disagreement with the WSJ’s argument:


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e Journal is right in saying that ‘No method of judicial selection is perfect,’ but it errs by setting up a false choice between ‘the rough and tumble of electoral accountability’ or ‘leaving the choices to a lawyer’s guild that is accountable to no one but themselves’ as the only possible methods of choosing state judges.”

Governor Lingle, a Republican, also uses her own experience appointing judges through the merit selection system while in office to reject the WSJ’s argument that merit selection sends state courts to the political left.

Thank you, Governor Lingle, for offering your opinion and publicly supporting our own former Governors at this critical point in Pennsylvania’s move towards merit selection. Your voice helps reinforce that merit selection is not about partisan politics – it’s about getting the best judges on the bench. Hopefully Pennsylvania will soon be able to join Hawaii and the majority of the United States

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Mar 19 2013

Governors unite over merit selection of judges in Pennsylvania

Published by under Merit Selection News

Yesterday, I had the fortune of hearing three ex-governors of Pennsylvania get together on a single phone call with the media to discuss merit selection in Pennsylvania. These are three people from across the political spectrum who sometimes have difficulty agreeing upon which end of a dog barks; but on the subject of how we might improve our system of choosing judges, they spoke passionately and with a united perspective.

They – former Governors Edward Rendell, Dick Thornburgh, Thomas Ridge – spent a half hour answering questions and giving their opinions on the current Merit Selection bills in the Pennsylvania Assembly, why our state would benefit from Merit Selection, and how their own time in office only reinforced that perspective. This event followed a letter to legislators and Governor Corbett exhorting them to action on merit selection, signed by these three former governors and a fourth, former Governor George Leader.

The union of these former leaders of Pennsylvania show that how are judges are selected is not an issue defined by party lines or political ties – indeed, the eradication of political allegiance from the judicial selection process is one of benefits that proponents of Merit Selection hope will manifest. Governor Ridge emphasized that the ideal judiciary is supposed to be independent of political machinery. It is the branch of government that is given direction not by the changing flavor of public opinion, but

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These four governors have all had first hand experience with how electioneering and campaigning casts a shadow over that independence, even when they themselves were forced to be participants of that system. They said they knew while in office that there was a better way to ensure the quality of Pennsylvania’s judiciary; and even now, long after they have all vacated the Pennsylvania’s Governor’s Mansion, they are working to give Pennsylvanians the opportunity to choose for themselves whether they agree.


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Feb 12 2013

Legislation in Indiana, South Dakota would refine Merit Selection systems

Published by under Merit Selection News

South Dakota and Indiana may change the composition of their Merit Selection commissions in coming days,

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if legislation introduced in both states continues to move forward.

Currently, Indiana’s nominating commission comprised of the Chief Justice, 3 nonattorneys (one from each Court of Appeals district) picked by the governor, and 3 attorneys elected by the attorneys of the state. The introduced bill would restrict the governor’s picks to selections from a list compiled by the four legislative leaders (House speaker, House minority leader, President pro tempore of the the Senate, and Senate minority leader).

In South Dakota , the Judicial Qualifications Commission would be altered so that the state bar would appoint only one person, instead of its current three. These would be replaced by two members appointed by the legislature, with one person selected by the House Speaker, and one person selected by the Senate President pro tempore.

We’re interested to see how these efforts develop in Indiana and South Dakota, and are glad to see legislators taking an interest in how their judges are selected. We hope that legislators here in Pennsylvania will take a cue from their colleagues, and make judicial selection reform a priority.

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Nov 07 2012

Press Release Details National Judicial Election Results

National Merit Selection Coalition partner Justice at Stake issued the following press release today:


Judicial Election TV Spending Sets New Record,

Yet Voters Reject Campaigns to Politicize the Judiciary

Seth Hoy, Brennan Center for Justice,, (646) 292-8369
Eeva Moore, Justice at Stake,, (202) 588-9462

For Immediate Release

WASHINGTON, D.C., Nov. 7, 2012 — Americans overwhelmingly rejected big-money attempts to hijack their courts on Election Day. The 2012 campaign saw record spending in state Supreme Court races, with Super PACs and other outside groups spending millions on TV ads and mailers seeking to influence judicial races. At the same time, voters rebuffed a series of costly campaigns seeking to make courts accountable to partisans and special interests, ignoring calls to unseat judges over their decisions, and rejecting referenda in three states designed to give politicians more power over the courts.

This year’s court-related campaigns also featured interesting side-stories, including spending by Super PACs, entry by the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity into judicial elections, national politicians seeking to unseat an Iowa justice, and a viral video with TV stars that helped elect a high court candidate.

“The arms race around our courts is growing worse, but voters are seeing through campaigns to make courts more political and less impartial,” said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake.

Although final fundraising totals are not yet available, spending on television advertisements in state Supreme Court races set an all-time record this year, totaling an estimated $27.8 million as of November 5, according to data provided by TNS Media Intelligence/CMAG and released by the Brennan Center for Justice and Justice at Stake—easily exceeding the record $24.4 million spent in 2004. (More than $31.7 million was spent in the 2011-2012 judicial election cycle, shattering the previous record of $26.6 million set in 2007-2008.)  Ten states saw races where TV spending exceeded a million dollars, and seven states (AL, IA, KY, MI, MS, NC, OH) saw negative ads released in the final weeks before the election.

“Judicial elections this year were characterized by attack ads, record-breaking spending, and outsized influence by special interests,” said Alicia Bannon, counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “As judges face increased pressure to act like politicians, the integrity of our courts is at risk.”

Political parties and independent groups dominated this year’s races, in many cases relying on secret money that does not appear in campaign finance disclosure filings. More than 50% of all TV ads came from non-candidate groups, compared with roughly 30% in 2010. In Michigan, home of the nation’s most costly judicial race, the state’s two political parties vastly outspent the candidates for three seats on the state Supreme Court. The parties spent an estimated $7.4 million in the TV ad wars, according to CMAG data, compared with approximately $1.1 million in TV spending by candidates and other independent groups, with total spending in the state surpassing $8.5 million.  The Michigan Campaign Finance Network estimates that TV spending by political parties was even higher, reaching $10 million this year. In North Carolina, outside groups including Super PACs drove TV ad spending to more than $3.1 million – higher than the state’s total TV spending from 2000-2010.  Political parties and independent groups were the four top TV spenders in the general election season: the Michigan Democratic State Central Committee ($4.1 million), the Michigan Republican Party ($3.3 million), the Florida group Defend Justice from Politics ($2.7 million), and the North Carolina Judicial Coalition, a Super PAC ($2.6 million).

In yes-or-no judicial retention elections two years ago, three Iowa Supreme Court justices were unseated over a unanimous decision finding it unconstitutional to deny marriage to same-sex couples. Some predicted a new wave of ousters this year, but yesterday Justice David Wiggins won another term in office with 54.5% of the vote. And in Florida, an unprecedented special interest and partisan campaign failed to unseat three Supreme Court justices, who won by a 2-to-1 margin.

Voters also rejected referenda to change merit-based judicial selection systems in ways that could inject partisan politics into state courts.

In Missouri, 76% of voters rejected Amendment 3, a proposed constitutional amendment to give Missouri’s governor a greater hand in picking the nominating commission that screens judicial candidates. In Arizona, 73% of voters rejected a similar proposed constitutional amendment, Proposition 115. In Florida, Amendment 5, a referendum to require state Senate confirmation of Supreme Court justices who are nominated by the governor, was defeated by a margin of 63%-37%.

Three in four Americans believe that the special-interest money needed to finance such elections influences court decisions. From 2000 through 2009, the last decade for which data is available, fundraising by high-court candidates surged to $206.9 million, more than double the $83.3 million raised in the 1990s.

Overall, there were 20 states with contestable state Supreme Court seats in 2012, with a total of 46 seats at stake. Twenty-five high court judges in 13 states faced one-candidate retention elections, in which voters choose whether to give incumbents another term.

The following is a round-up of major trends and developments in the 2011-2012 judicial election campaign season, as identified by Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice. National TV spending data for judicial races, as well as links to ads, are available at “Judicial Elections 2012,” a web page jointly hosted by the Brennan Center and Justice at Stake. Additional analysis is also available at the Brennan Center’s “Buying Time 2012” web page.

Final estimates of TV ad spending, as recorded by TNS Media Intelligence/CMAG, are expected within a few days. Complete candidate fundraising data often are not available until weeks, and in some cases months, after the elections, meaning that campaign fundraising estimates tend to rise over time.

TV Ad Data

Television ads ran this year in 16 states with elections for the state Supreme Court: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, and West Virginia.

Michigan saw the highest overall spending on Supreme Court TV ads, with about $8.5 million spent on airtime, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMAG; a state-based watchdog group estimates that political parties spent $10 million on Supreme Court “issue ads,” based on an inspection of public inspection files at local TV stations.  Alabama, with a contentious election for chief justice, was second in TV spending at $3.3 million. Alabama chief justice candidate Judge Bob Vance spent more than $1.5 million on his campaign, the most of any judicial candidate.

Of the $27.8 million in total TV spending, approximately $12 million was spent by candidates, while $15.7 million was spent by parties and independent groups.

A Closer Look at Key Judicial Races

Partisan Attacks in Florida, Iowa through Retention Elections

In Florida, all three Supreme Court justices appearing on a retention ballot won a new term after an aggressive campaign to unseat them over a few controversial rulings. Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince were targeted by Americans for Prosperity, the Republican Party of Florida and a tea party-linked group, Restore Justice 2012.

“Special interests and partisan politicians waged an unprecedented campaign to unseat three Florida justices. But Florida voters stood up for fair and impartial courts that resolve disputes based on the facts and the law, not partisan pressure,” Brandenburg said.

In Iowa, state Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins won a retention election after facing a major campaign to unseat him. Outside groups opposing Justice Wiggins pumped in national money, and two national Republican politicians, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, campaigned in Iowa against his retention. The Iowa GOP also opposed his retention. Opponents criticized his joining a unanimous 2009 ruling that permitted same-sex couples to marry; in 2010, the backlash swept three Iowa Supreme Court justices from the court.

“Iowa voters delivered a powerful message,” Brandenburg said, “that they will shield their courts when special interests try to intimidate judges.”

Justice Wiggins did not campaign or raise money in his own defense. According to the most recent state filings, retention opponents spent $466,125, including Iowans for Freedom, $317,794, and the National Organization for Marriage, $148,331. Pro-retention expenditures of $348,285 included the Iowa State Bar Association, $37,087, Progress Iowa, $4,939, Justice Not Politics Action, $301,191, and Human Rights Campaign, $5,068.

Florida’s Supreme Court had not seen a contentious retention election before this year. Americans for Prosperity, founded with the support of David and Charles Koch, released an advertisement opposing the justices and spent about $155,000, according to media reports. A pro-retention group, Defend Justice from Politics, released a TV ad urging voters to support the justices and to reject the “political power grab” by opponents of retention. The group spent more than $2.7 million on TV advertising by Nov. 5.

The targeted justices’ campaigns raised more than $1.5 million, according to state filings. “It’s terribly disappointing when judges have to raise big money from attorneys to defend against partisan attacks,” Brandenburg said.

“Judges need to be able to make hard calls based on the law, without looking over their shoulders at threats of political retaliation,” said Adam Skaggs, Senior Counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “It’s heartening that Florida and Iowa’s voters rejected attempts to politicize their courts.”

Referenda on Judicial Selection in Missouri, Florida, and Arizona

In Missouri, voters rejected a ballot measure that sought to undermine the Missouri Nonpartisan Court Plan, which has served as a model judicial selection system for impartial courts in more than 30 states.

Also defeated was the proposed constitutional amendment to require Florida Senate confirmation of state Supreme Court appointees. The amendment also would have given the legislature access to confidential records of the commission that investigates complaints against judges.

The Arizona measure, Proposition 115, would have allowed the governor to pick more members of the nominating commission, and eliminated a requirement that a final list of candidates recommended to the governor include individuals from different political parties.

“Tuesday’s vote will send a strong message around the country not to tamper with a system that has helped insulate judges from politics for decades,” Brandenburg said.

Judicial Ad Spending in Michigan Highest in the Nation

With three of five Supreme Court seats up for grabs in the general election, Michigan led the country in TV spending. Michigan saw more than $8.5 million and perhaps more than $10 million spent on judicial TV campaign ads, making it the highest spending state in the nation. A nominally nonpartisan judicial election model did not deter political parties and independent groups from dominating in TV spending in the races as they sought to influence the makeup of the court.

Michigan saw the most star-studded campaign video, as well as some of the most negative ads.  Judicial candidate Bridget Mary McCormack’s campaign released an online video starring the cast of the hit TV-show West Wing.  Part campaign ad and part public service announcement about the importance of voting for down-ballot Supreme Court candidates, it was the first-ever viral judicial campaign ad. McCormack herself also became the target of a particularly severe attack ad, in which she was criticized for offering to provide legal representation to detainees suspected of terrorism held at Guantanamo Bay.

Republican Stephen Markman and Democrat Bridget McCormack won eight-year terms to the high court, gaining 33% of the vote and 30%, respectively. Republican Brian Zahra was elected to a partial term on the court with 53% of the vote.

Despite the runaway spending, lax state disclosure laws mean that little is known about who funded the races. Even though nearly all of Michigan’s multi-million dollar TV spending has been financed by political parties and special interests, reported independent expenditures by parties and political action committees is only  $679,094.

Judicial Ad Spending Stays High in Alabama

From 2000-2009, Alabama had the costliest Supreme Court races in the nation. With only one of five seats on the high court contested in the 2012 general election, spending was predicted to fall far short of previous years. While overall spending in the state remained low this year relative to previous cycles, a heated race for Chief Justice generated significant campaign expenditures, leaving Alabama with the second highest TV spending level in the country.

With Republicans dominating the high court, Democratic interest in Supreme Court races had waned in recent years, causing a drop in spending. However, former justice Roy Moore proved a controversial Republican candidate, as he was best known for his removal as Chief Justice in 2003 after defying a federal court order to take down a monument of the Ten Commandments he installed in the Alabama Judicial Building.  Moore struggled to attract funding from business interests that traditionally fund Republican candidates, and was outspent by two opponents in the Republican primary. While Democratic candidate Bob Vance lacked Moore’s name recognition, he was able to attract some traditional Republican supporters — and donors — who viewed Moore as too extreme.

Vance spent more on TV ads than any other judicial candidate this year, but was unsuccessful. Moore won election to his old seat by 52-48%.

Super PACs Dump Millions into North Carolina Judicial Races

In one of the year’s most surprising races, Americans for Prosperity, other national groups and Super PACs dominated spending in a North Carolina Supreme Court contest. Incumbent Justice Paul Newby defeated Court of Appeals Judge Sam Ervin IV by 52-48% of the vote.

The court’s 4-3, right-leaning balance was at stake in the election. Justice Newby’s campaign was supported by more than

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$2.5 million in TV ad spending by a conservative Super PAC called the North Carolina Judicial Coalition. AFP pitched in with viagra online canadian pharmacy its largest effort ever to swing a judicial contest and spent $225,000 for direct mail. Another Super PAC, Justice for All NC, began airing an attack ad against Judge Ervin late in the race; the Super PAC has received $865,000 from a Washington-based group, the Republican State Leadership Committee.

Judge Ervin spent more than $300,000, and Justice Newby, more than $200,000, on TV ad spending. Total TV spending in the state was more than $3.1 million.

Both candidates participated in North Carolina’s public financing program for appellate judicial campaigns, and foreswore raising significant donations from attorneys and parties who might appear before them. But a recent court ruling bars the state from providing additional funds to candidates to compensate for Super PAC spending in support of their opponents.

“The flood of outside spending has put a tremendous strain on North Carolina’s public financing system for judicial candidates,” Bannon said.

Judicial TV Ads Turned Negative in Ohio

TV ads grew increasingly negative in the run-up to the Ohio Supreme Court election, with Ohio witnessing one of the nastiest ads of the season. A Republican Party ad in support of incumbent Justice Robert Cupp described candidate Bill O’Neill as having “expressed sympathy for rapists” while serving as a judge. In a letter to the Republican Party, the Ohio State Bar Association described the ad as misleading and stated that it “impugn[s] the integrity of the judicial system, the integrity of a candidate for the Supreme Court of Ohio, and erode[s] the public trust and confidence in the independence and impartiality of the judiciary.” Justice Cupp distanced himself from the ad, stating through his campaign committee that “he has not and would not approve a commercial like this.” The Ohio State Bar Association stated that Justice Cupp needed to go further and requested that the GOP cease airing the ad.

Democrat O’Neill defeated Republican Justice Cupp for a seat on the high court. Democrats Justice Yvette McGee Brown and Michael Skindell lost to Republican challengers.

After Expensive Primary, Texas Stays Quiet

In Texas, Justice Don Willett raised $1,686,031 in his successful reelection, spending a total of $1,167,930 on TV ads in the primaries. After his victory in the primaries, no money was spent on TV advertising by his campaign, as he faced only a nominal challenger.

TV Methodology

All data on ad airings and spending on ads are calculated and prepared by TNS Media Intelligence/CMAG, which captures satellite data in the nation’s largest media markets. CMAG’s calculations do not reflect ad agency commissions or the costs of producing advertisements, nor do they reflect the cost of ad buys on local cable channels. The costs reported here therefore understate actual expenditures.

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Justice at Stake 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 visit our blog, Gavel Grab
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law is a non-partisan public policy and law institute that focuses on fundamental issues of democracy and justice.  Its work ranges from voting rights to campaign finance reform, from racial justice in criminal law to presidential power in the fight against terrorism. A singular institution – 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 about the Brennan Center, go to

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