Colin Powell, former Secretary of State
Money & Elections
“A saint would be hard-pressed to disregard the fact that one litigant gave them a huge donation while the other gave nothing.…Most of our judges are not saints.”
Cash has become king in judicial elections. From 2000-09, state supreme court candidates raised $206.4 million nationally, more than double the $83.3 million spent in 1990-99. That does not include the tens of millions more spent on “independent” TV ads.
Bluntly, special interests hope to buy favorable treatment, by electing judges who they hope will serve their agenda. As retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor warned, "In too many states, judicial elections are becoming political prizefights where partisans and special interests seek to install judges who will answer to them instead of the law and the Constitution.”
Many in the public believe that justice is for sale, because skyrocketing election costs have forced judges to raise money from those who appear before them in court. To insulate the courts from special interest excesses, more states are looking at reforming their judicial elections, or advancing proposals to eliminate competitive judicial elections entirely.
Runaway election spending that once was seen only in partisan, contested elections for judges spilled over to retention elections in 2010. Total spending in Illinois, neighboring Iowa, Colorado and Alaska approached $4.9 million, in just a single year more than doubling the total spent in the entire preceding decade for all retention elections nationwide, of $2.2 million.
The threat to impartial elected courts was raised to an unprecedented level the same year by the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which permits corporations to spend unlimited amounts on election campaigns. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in his dissent, "At a time when concerns about the conduct of judicial elections have reached a fever pitch...the Court today unleashes the floodgates of corporate and union general treasury spending in these races."