Report: Judicial Elections Undermine Justice

Report: Judicial Elections Undermine Justice October 31, 2013

The Center for American Progress has a new report on the unprecedented amount of money being spent in state judicial elections, especially by third party corporate groups. The unsurprising conclusion is that the influence of that money undermines justice for criminal defendants and civil plaintiffs.

As state supreme court campaigns become more expensive and more partisan, the fear of being portrayed as “soft on crime” is leading courts to rule more often for prosecutors and against criminal defendants.

That is the disturbing finding of this Center for American Progress study, which explores the impact on the criminal justice system of the explosion in judicial campaign cash and the growing use of political attack ads in state supreme court elections, which have increased pressure on elected judges to appear “tough on crime.” In carrying out this study, CAP collected data on supreme courts that, between 2000 and 2007, saw their first election in which the candidates and independent spenders spent more than $3 million. This includes high courts in Illinois, Mississippi, Washington, Georgia, Wisconsin, Nevada, and West Virginia. For each of these courts, CAP examined 4,684 rulings in criminal cases for a time period starting five years before a given state’s first $3 million high court election and ending five years after that election.

The findings reveal a clear trend: As campaign cash increased, the courts studied began to rule more often in favor of prosecutors and against criminal defendants.

  • The 2004 Illinois Supreme Court race broke judicial campaign spending records. As Illinois voters were bombarded with attack ads featuring violent criminals, the high court ruled in favor of the prosecution in 69 percent of its criminal cases—an 18 percent increase over the previous year.
  • Some states saw a sharp increase in rulings for the state just after their first elections in which spending reached $3 million. Mississippi’s high court, for example, saw its first $3 million election in 2000 and some nasty political attack ads that same year. When the next judicial election rolled around two years later, in 2002, Mississippi’s justices ruled against criminal defendants in 90 percent of the high court’s criminal cases—a 20 percent increase from 2000.
  • After two politically charged races in 2007 and 2008, the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s percentage of rulings for the state shot to 90 percent during the 2009 and 2011 election years.
  • The correlations were strongest in years that saw more ads produced and paid for by independent groups unaffiliated with the candidates—ads that tended to be more negative than those of the candidates. The one court in the study that saw no independent spending, the Nevada Supreme Court, did not exhibit a tendency to rule for the state during big-money elections.
  • The Washington and Georgia high courts saw a huge spike in independent spending in 2006, followed by a sharp decline. The percentage of rulings against criminal defendants in these courts also peaked in 2006 and then dropped precipitously as the campaign cash and attack ads disappeared.

These results suggest that, just as judges are more likely to rule against criminal defendants as elections approach, state supreme courts are more likely to rule for the state as the amount of money in high court elections increases.

But that’s really just a side effect of the real goal of all this spending on judicial elections. State chambers of commerce and other third-party groups funded by big business are trying to elect conservative judges not because they’ll be tougher on crime but because they’re less likely to rule in favor of plaintiffs who file civil suits against corporations. The “tough on crime” stuff is just a tool to get them into office.

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