Justice for sale in state supreme court elections?

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Is justice for sale at the state level? That is a legitimate question in the many states that now elect their supreme court justices. (Only 12 states do not elect their justices.)

A new study by The Center for Public Integrity shows that outside spending groups —including nonprofits that do not disclose their donors and state-level super PACs— are funneling more and more money into state supreme court races. And they’re having an impact. Out-of-state influence likely helped decide recent races in North Carolina, Iowa and Mississippi.

The Center examined 10 high-profile state supreme court elections in 2012 and 2013 in which outside spending was a factor. At least a third of the $11.7 million spent by independent groups originated outside the election states, mostly from Washington, D.C.-based organizations, according to our analysis of campaign finance reports, tax records and documents filed with the Federal Communications Commission.

Tracking all outside spending is nearly impossible thanks to lax state disclosure rules, as well as a loophole in the federal tax code that allows politically active nonprofits to run attacks ads without disclosing who funds them. 

The Center chose 10 states for this investigation based on their notoriety and the high level of spending by outside groups. Besides North Carolina, Iowa and Mississippi, our research focused on Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Montana, Ohio, Oklahoma and Wisconsin.

The influence of nonprofits and super PACs has changed the nature of state supreme court  races, formerly shielded, at least in part, from the broad influence of money and partisan politics. Now, in many states, justices are involved in bare-knuckle partisan brawls similar to those that characterize non-judicial elections. In such contests, money makes a big difference. 

In the 10 state races analyzed by the Center, national political groups were active directly or indirectly in seven. Seventy-five percent of the outside money could be traced to the long-running battle between trial lawyers and business interests. Trial lawyers helped carry the day in Florida, Louisiana and Oklahoma, while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says it was successful in North Carolina, Michigan, Ohio and Mississippi.

In the months ahead, The Center for Public Integrity will be expanding its coverage of spending in governor’s races by all outside groups. And the Center will be looking at financial disclosures of state supreme court justices and federal appeals court judges. Stay tuned. Until next week.

Bill