The amount of money pouring into state and national elections via SuperPACs is not simply limited to congressional or presidential races. These groups are also funneling unprecedented amounts of dark money into judicial races as well, and the impact the campaign cash has on the nation’s judicial system is not good.
For starters, judicial races have rarely operated like traditional campaigns. Judges rarely, if at all, actively campaign let alone solicit for donations.
But, thanks to a wave of activism directing at riding the benches of judges seen as “activist” by the hard-right, state judges no longer have a choice. Two years ago in Iowa three state Supreme Court justices who upheld a ruling in favor of same-sex marriage lost their judgeships after national conservatives launched a toxic million-dollar campaign funded by money from outside the sate. Similar campaigns were launched in Alaska, Colorado and Illinois.
A 2010 study by the watchdog group Justice at Stake examined 29 judicial races and found that the top five spenders averaged $473,000 a piece while all other donors averaged $850. Thanks to the loopholes in disclosure laws, those donors remain anonymous while the money spent remained largely unaccounted.
One election law expert likened these developments to “floating auctions” where special interest groups can focus money and manpower in specific states to upend justices they don’t like.
The problem with all of this of course is that it removes, perhaps permanently, the veneer of independence in our judiciary. State court elections, while in many senses political, have now become partisan battles. And while judges are entitled to hold personal political beliefs, good judges understand that a personal political belief is not the same thing as applying the law to the facts of a case and coming to a conclusion based on the law.
With big campaign contributions come big expectations for results from donors which means our judiciary is at risk from being entirely bought and sold by corporate interests unless we get meaningful campaign finance reform and get it soon.
Photo from 401K via flickr.