Report shows special interests spending more in state Supreme Court races

Marilyn Tennissen Aug. 19, 2010, 8:52am

Spending on state Supreme Court elections across the country has more than doubled in the past decade, and, according to a report released Monday, special interest groups are outspending individual donors by a wide margin.

In the Lone Star State, the Texas Democratic Party was the largest donor and three of the top 5 campaign donations were made by law firms.

The report, "The New Politics of Judicial Elections, 2000-2009: Decade of Change," is a study of spending in judicial elections over the past decade. It was released Aug. 16 by the Justice at Stake Campaign, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

In a foreward, Sandra Day O'Connor, retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice, warned that elected judges are widely seen by the public as beholden to campaign benefactors who sometimes spend millions to sway court races.

"This crisis of confidence in the judiciary is real and growing," O'Connor said. "Left unaddressed, the perception that justice is for sale will undermine the rule of law that the courts are supposed to uphold."

According to the report, candidates raised $206.9 million in 2000-2009, compared with $83.3 million in the 1990s.

Research shows a large gap between the amounts given by the biggest donors and the smallest. The report examined 29 elections in the nation's 10 most costly elections states and found that the top five spenders in each of these elections invested an average of $473,000, while the remaining 116,000 contributors averaged $850 each.

In Texas, firms began to take advantage of rules that allow law firms to contribute more than individuals.

According to the report, defense firms backed elections of justices to the all-Republican Supreme Court. But in 2008, the state Democratic Party took the top spot when it spent around $900,000 on TV ads for three candidates who all lost by narrow margins.

With a total $19,197,826 in candidate fundraising for 2000-2009, Texas ranks fifth nationally. And the state ranks 10th on television spending with a decade total of $2,533,538.

The report warns that with this year's Citizens United decision, special-interest campaign money is only likely to increase.

Citizens United v Federal Election Commission, decided Jan. 21, held that corporate funding of independent political broadcasts in candidate elections cannot be limited under the First Amendment. In it, the court struck down a provision of the McCain-Feingold Act that prohibited all corporations, both for-profit and not-for-profit, and unions from broadcasting "electioneering communications."

"The next decade will be a perilous time for fair courts," said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of the Justice at Stake Campaign, a legal reform group based in Washington. "For more than two centuries, Americans have counted on judges to ignore political pressure. But the flood of special-interest money is changing that. Without reforms, there is a real risk of irreversible damage to public confidence in our courts."

The full report is available at

Top Texas Judicial Election Spenders 2000-2009

Texas Democratic Party $940,978
Vinson & Elkins $467,768
Texans for Lawsuit Reform $284, 045
Haynes & Boone $248,464
Fulbright & Jaworski $240,848

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