ST. PAUL (Oct. 30, 2013) — The trend of high-dollar, increasingly partisan judicial elections is growing across the country and Minnesotans are at risk of losing their courts to special interests and big money politics.
A new report by Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice highlights this growing problem across the country. A coalition of nearly 40 Minnesota organizations ranging from chambers of commerce to labor unions have united around a solution to prevent Minnesota from following this disturbing trend.
The report, entitled The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2011 – 2012, details how campaign spending has hit record highs, special interest spending has substantially escalated, and how national politics are degrading public confidence in the judiciary.
“Our courts are supposed to be a safe place for impartial justice, but campaign cash and political pressure are threatening to tip the scales,” said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake. “If Americans start thinking of judges as politicians in robes, our democracy is in trouble.”
“Special-interest spending in judicial elections has turned into an arms race,” said Alicia Bannon, counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice and lead author of the report. “The American people need to know that judges are deciding cases based on the law, not on who spent the most money to support their campaign.”
This trend is not limited to states with partisan judicial elections like Texas and West Virginia, just across the border in Wisconsin, a state with a similar system to Minnesota, special interest groups have spent more than $8.6 million dollars since 2007 on judicial elections. In the 2011-12 cycle alone over $56 million dollars was spent on judicial elections across the country.
Negative ads aired in at least ten states including misleading ads that described candidates as being “sympathetic to rapists,” and “volunteer[ing] to help free a terrorist.” In addition, the Citizens United decision unlocked unlimited independent spending on elections. Special interests groups alone spent a record $15.4 million on television ads and other election spending in high court races in 2011-12.
National political groups best known for their efforts to influence presidential and congressional elections have set their sights on judicial elections in several states. This has enabled costly spending on judicial races to continue around the country.
Twelve states saw more than $1 million dollars of spending on high court races in 2011-12. This judicial spending is highly concentrated among a few out of state special interest groups and political parties. The top 10 spenders accounted for one-third of spending in 2011-12 as opposed to less than one-quarter of spending in 2007-08.
To prevent this tidal wave of increasing campaign cash and special interest money that is rapidly flooding into judicial races all across the country from pouring into Minnesota, a coalition of organizations have come together to resist the growing politicization of judicial races.
The Coalition for Impartial Justice is advancing reforms, via The Impartial Justice Act, which would empower voters with non-partisan information about how their judges perform; restore accountability by ensuring Minnesotans have a meaningful vote 100% of the time through retention elections; and ensure justice is not for sale in Minnesota by expanding merit selection to all judges.
Coalition for Impartial Justice President Sarah Walker said, “We want our courts to be fair and impartial. This amendment ensures judges are chosen based on their qualifications, not partisan politics or their ability to fundraise.” Walker also added, “If we don’t act now, it is not a matter of if – but when – these types of high-dollar, bitterly partisan campaigns and negative attack ads are seen in Minnesota judicial elections.”
The Coalition for Impartial Justice and its member organizations, including unlikely allies such as the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the Minnesota AFL-CIO, have been raising the profile of the Impartial Justice Act across the state through a series of “Fair Courts Forums.” The Coalition is striving to pass the Impartial Justice Act during the 2014 Legislative Session, which would then appear on the ballot as a constitutional amendment for Minnesota voter approval in November 2014.
CIJ is a non-partisan coalition that advocates for the passage of the Impartial Justice Act. The Impartial Justice Act will empower voters, restore accountability, and ensure fairness and impartiality in our courts. To learn more about the forums or The Coalition for Impartial Justice please visit www.impartialcourts.org.
Justice at Stake is a nonpartisan campaign with more than 50 national partners working to keep state and federal courts fair and impartial. Justice at Stake Campaign partners educate the public and work for reforms to keep politics and special interests out of the courtroom – and to protect what Chief Justice Rehnquist called one of the “crown jewels” of our democracy. To read the full report visit: http://newpoliticsreport.org.