Money Is Flowing Into State Supreme Court Races, Study Says

Dec 14, 2017
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A new study finds that a lot of money is flowing into races for state Supreme Court. Millions of dollars are coming from sometimes mysterious donors, and a lot of it goes to negative advertising. Here's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: For nearly 20 years, the Brennan Center for Justice has been following the money in state Supreme Court elections. Senior Counsel Alicia Bannon says the trends are going in one direction - up.

ALICIA BANNON: In 1999, there were seven states that where there was at least one justice on the bench that had been involved in a million-dollar race. Now, the number is 20. So more than half of all states that use elections for choosing their Supreme Court judges have what we call a million-dollar court.

JOHNSON: In the last election cycle alone, Bannon says Supreme Court elections attracted more than $69 million. More than half of the financial contributions came from lawyers, lobbyists, business interests and labor unions.

BANNON: About 40 percent of all of the spending in these elections came from outside groups. A lot of that went to negative attack ads. Almost all of it was non-transparent. So you don't know the sources of the money.

JOHNSON: Bannon says that raises some fundamental questions about judicial independence. Some research says judges punish criminals more harshly in election years, and they're more likely to vote on behalf of business donors. But Bannon says there's evidence those practices stop when judges are no longer eligible for re-election because of mandatory retirement or other factors.

BANNON: And that really goes against the very role of courts in our democracy. Ultimately, judges are supposed to be deciding cases based on their understanding of what the law requires, not worrying about how it's going to play out in the next election.

JOHNSON: That matters because state Supreme Courts can deliver the final word on environment, education and criminal justice issues, even though that may not be clear to voters when they go to the polls.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.