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The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2004

A perfect storm of hardball TV ads, millions in campaign contributions, and bare-knuckled special interest politics is descending on a rapidly growing number of Supreme Court campaigns, according to a major new report from Open Society Foundations grantee Justice at Stake Campaign and its partners, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law and the Institute for Money in State Politics.

The report comes on the third anniversary of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that gave interest groups more tools to pressure judicial candidates to rule on their behalf. Thirty-eight states elect their high courts, and more than 86 percent of state judges must stand for election.

Amid growing speculation over a near-term vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court, and with interest groups posturing for a confirmation battle involving millions of dollars in television advertising and grassroots battles, this new report shows that many Americans are already seeing high-stakes court battles in their own backyards.

Among the key findings of the report:

  • An estimated $24.4 million was spent on TV ads in state high court races, obliterating the previous record of $10.6 million set in 2000, and TV ads in high court campaigns ran in 4 out of 5 states in 2004, up from 1 in 5 in 2000;
  • Of the 22 states that use head-to-head elections to choose members of their Supreme Court, nine states broke combined candidate fundraising records. Two candidates in one record-setting race in Illinois combined to raise over $9.3 million, more than candidates in 18 of last year's U.S. Senate races;
  • State Supreme Court elections attracted record sums from business interests, a reflection of the importance of state courts in setting corporate damage payments. For the first time since these records have been tracked, business contributions outpaced those from the legal community;
  • Interest groups are bringing the culture wars into state court elections by demanding "positions" on hot-button social issues from state court candidates.

The report also offers good news. In a number of states, far-sighted citizens, judges, legislators, and bar leaders are banding together as never before to address the threat and reform their judicial selection systems.

The complete report and a press release are available for download in PDF format.

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