Biz Groups Dominate Judicial Races
By Daniel C. Vock, Staff Writer
State Supreme Court candidates and their corporate allies have spent at least $1 million on TV commercials in three states this year, but trial lawyers, traditionally the dominant players in such contests, have stayed on the sidelines.
A recent study reveals that during this election cycle business groups have been the largest sponsors of TV spots - usually the most costly element of high-profile campaigns.
Although the survey , conducted by Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, gives a glimpse of who's spending big money on television ads to influence high court campaigns, it doesn't take into account spending on other expenses - such as radio or direct mail.
The plaintiff bar is one of the most reliable financial pillars of the Democratic Party. And trial lawyers have a natural interest in judicial races, because judges affect much of their livelihood. Lately, though, business interests aligned with the Republican Party have poured more money into judicial contests in an effort to improve the legal climate for businesses and promote tort reform.
"At this point, the playing field is far from level, especially in the realm of TV ads. ... It looks like the left has walked off the field," said Jesse Rutledge, a spokesman for Justice at Stake , a Washington, D.C.-based group that monitors judicial elections. The reason for the drop-off is still unclear, and the pattern may not hold through the election.
Twelve states are holding contested high court elections this year. The biggest battle is in Alabama, where the post of chief justice is up for grabs. Ohio and Washington state have also seen million-dollar campaigns. A majority of North Carolina's high court is in play. And Kentucky candidates are testing the limits of what they are allowed to say and do on the campaign trail.
Big business has made a splash in many of those contests.
As of a month before Election Day, two groups with ties to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce topped the list of spenders, with their ad blitzes in Alabama and Ohio. A third group hitting the airwaves in Washington state, called It's Time for a Change, is linked to the building industry there.
Only two campaigns broke into the top five spenders in the Brennan Center's survey - the two remaining candidates for an opening as chief justice in Alabama.
There, the incumbent Drayton Nabers (R) is trying to hold on to a seat he's held since 2003. He replaced Roy Moore, the chief justice who lost his seat after he refused to remove a 5,000-pound monument of the Ten Commandments that he brought into the state Supreme Court building.
Nabers fought off a challenge from a Moore-backed challenger in the GOP primary and now faces Sue Bell Cobb, the only Democrat sitting on the Alabama Court of Appeals.
The American Taxpayers Alliance, a group that, according to tax records, has received funding from the U.S. Chamber, spent $1 million running TV ads defending Nabers and other incumbents in the primary.
On top of that, more than half of the $2.2 million Nabers has raised came from business groups, according to the Institute on Money in State Politics .
Meanwhile, preliminary reports from Cobb, his Democratic opponent, show nearly equal giving from business and the legal community. And no outside group has aired commercials on her behalf yet.
But as Election Day nears, the race is likely to evolve into a battle between business and trial lawyers, predicted Larry Powell, a former political consultant and a professor of communications at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
"Alabama has a significant number of fairly wealthy trial lawyers," he said. "And they stay politically active."
Their donations plus contributions from unions have helped Cobb keep even in the race financially, Powell added.
In Ohio, a group called the Partnership for Ohio's Future spent $450,000 to run an ad earlier this month commending Robert Cupp (R), an appeals court judge now seeking a spot on the Ohio Supreme Court. The ad touts Cupp because he "led the fight against liberal activists to preserve Ohio's motto, 'With God, all things are possible.'"
The Partnership, which shares an address with the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, spent nearly as much money on ads touting another GOP high court candidate.
Washington state broke its records for spending in high court races this September, topping $2 million in the competition for three seats. Plus, two business-related groups spent nearly $1 million on ads, and a left-leaning group shelled out $250,000 for ads, according to the Brennan Center study.
Georgia's race between Justice Carol Hunstein and Mike Wiggins has become the most expensive high court contest in the state's history, and a business-backed group is planning to weigh in further, according to an op-ed piece by the group's founder in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution .
All but two of Kentucky's 263 judges are up for election this year, and the rules for those contests changed in mid-October. A federal judge ruled that judicial candidates may declare their party affiliation and may ask for campaign contributions themselves. It's the second time in two years that part of Kentucky's judicial canons - the rules governing judges' conduct - were struck down.
A majority of the North Carolina Supreme Court is up for election, which will test the Tarheel State's public financing law for judicial elections for the second time since lawmakers approved it there in 2002.