Justice at Stake: Public Financing ‘More Critical Than Ever’ to Protect Courts
McComish Ruling ‘Disappointing, but Not Fatal,’ Reform Group Says
WASHINGTON, D.C., June 27—Justice at Stake Executive Director Bert Brandenburg said of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in McComish v. Bennett: “Today’s ruling is disappointing, but not fatal for America’s courts. State judicial elections are drowning in special-interest spending. Properly crafted public financing laws are more critical than ever, so that judges do not have to dial for dollars from major donors who may appear before them in court.”
A key element of the ruling, Brandenburg noted, is that even in striking down one important funding mechanism—triggered matching funds for participating candidates—the Supreme Court affirmed its previous rulings that public financing is itself constitutional.
Public financing has been an important reform in the area of judicial elections, where campaign spending exploded nationally in the last decade. State high-court candidates raised $206.9 million in 2000-09, compared with $83.3 million in the 1990s, and special-interest groups spent tens of millions more on independent TV ads. Judges face some form of election in 39 states.
Seeking to reduce special-interest influence, four states enacted public financing for appellate court elections: North Carolina, New Mexico, Wisconsin and West Virginia. All have the same funding mechanism struck down by the Supreme Court.
Polls in North Carolina, Wisconsin and West Virginia all show broad bipartisan voter support for public financing of judicial elections. National polls show that three Americans in four believe that campaign spending in judicial elections influences courtroom decisions.
Brandenburg also said a Seventh Circuit case continues to debate whether triggered matching funds may be constitutional in the specific context of judicial elections. In Wisconsin Right to Life v. Brennan, Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice argue that judges have a unique role in our government, with a constitutional duty to be impartial. The groups say that creates a far more compelling state interest, of preventing even the appearance of bias in elected judges (see this June 17 news release to learn more).
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The Justice at Stake Campaign 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. Justice at Stake public statements do not necessarily reflect the views of all partners or JAS board members. For more about Justice at Stake, go to www.justiceatstake.org, or www.gavelgrab.org.