Nov 08 2013
Election day in Pennsylvania came and went without much fanfare, but judicial elections are a bit like ducks on ponds. Above the water, they don’t attract much attention and don’t result in much controversy. Under the water, the candidates and their committees are scrambling like crazy to make connections and raise money.
I know you’re asking yourself, “Judicial elections are so boring! What do the candidates need money for?” Candidates need the money because all that commotion under the water is stirring up dirt. More and more, judicial campaigns are looking alarmingly similar to ordinary political campaigns. In recent years, judicial campaigns have included everything from Super PACS and mudslinging ads to independent spending by supporters and detractors alike.
The New Politics of Judicial Elections, a collaboration between PMC partner organizations The Brennan Center for Justice and Justice at Stake and the National Institute on Money in State Politics, has been tracking this issue in a series of reports since 2000. A new report was just released. It looks at the 2011-2012 election cycle to track continuing trends and monitor new developments. The 2011-2012 election cycle was record breaking, but not in a good way.
Spending on television ads hit record highs, exceeding the previous record by more than 25%. Independent expenditures (money spent by supporters or detractors “unaffiliated” with a candidate’s official campaign) accounted for more than 27% of the total amount spent on high court races around the country. This, too, is a new record, exceeding the previous mark by more than 50%. Special interest groups best known for influencing national political races inserted themselves in state judicial contests around the nation. Perhaps most strikingly, total estimated spending on judicial races in 2011-2012 was only slightly lower than total spending in the 2007-2008 PRESIDENTIAL election cycle ($56.4M for 2011-2012 judicial elections vs. $60.7M [adjusted for inflation] for the 2007-2008 presidential election).
The bottom line is this: Things are not good! More money than ever is pouring into judicial elections around the country and it’s coming from special interest groups. Many donors end up appearing in state court before the judges that they helped get elected, and this practice is killing the public’s perception of the judiciary.
Pennsylvania needs to get out of the judicial election business. If this report isn’t an indication that judicial elections are bad for the judiciary and bad for the public, I don’t know what is. As time goes on, things are only getting worse. Let’s get the message to our representatives that it’s time for Pennsylvanians to change the way that we choose judges.