Judicial Campaigns Shatter Fund-Raising Records
By Kathleen Hunter, Staff Writer
Fund-raising and spending on television advertisements in state Supreme Court elections are shattering records across the country in what court watchers peg as a trend towards increasingly down-and-dirty judicial campaigns.
At the center of the storm is a Supreme Court race in Illinois that has drawn national interest and dollars. The race is in a judicial district that encompasses the sparsely populated, poorer southern part of the state and that has been a hotbed for personal-injury and product-liability litigation. In 2003, a Madison County court there levied a massive $10.1 billion judgment -- the largest award in Illinois history -- against tobacco giant Phillip Morris in a class-action suit brought by smokers.
The race's two candidates -- Republican Lloyd Karmeier and Democrat Gordon Maag -- both are lower court judges and already have broken fund-raising records for a single judicial race in their quest to fill a vacancy on the seven-member high court.
Together the candidates have raised more than $5 million -- in approximately equal amounts -- with huge infusions predicted in the remaining days before the Nov. 2 election. A 1996 Alabama Supreme Court race in which the two candidates raised about $4.4 million was the previous record holder.
"The money is absolutely flooding in," said Cindi Canary, director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a group that advocates for clean elections. "This race looks more like a nasty legislative race than it resembles a traditional judicial race."
More than 90 percent of Maag's money has come from the state's Democratic Party, which is heavily financed by trial lawyers, according to an informal Illinois Campaign for Political Reform analysis. Karmeier has received about $750,000 from the state's Republican Party and about $700,000 from the Illinois Civil Justice League, a political action committee that receives much of its funding from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Canary said.
"It's business interests on one side, and it's trial lawyers and their associates on the other," said Jesse Rutledge, communications director for the Justice at Stake Campaign, a Washington-based coalition of 40 groups advocating for an impartial judiciary.
This single judicial election has spawned record spending -- about $3 million so far -- on television ads by the candidates, state parties and interest groups.
The Illinois Civil Justice League has run ads directly and indirectly accusing Maag of being in the pocket of the state's prominent trial lawyers.
"Unfair court rulings drive away doctors, forcing some patients to travel out of state for care," one anti-Maag ad states. "Families pay more for everything they buy because of crazy lawsuits. New companies go elsewhere because they are afraid of being sued. All because of a few bad judges and their trial-lawyer friends, who pocket up to half of jury awards."
The Illinois State Chamber of Commerce, which has come out in favor of Karmeier, paid for an ad that shows sharks circling, compares the state's trial lawyers to "sharks in a feeding frenzy," and warns voters that "lawsuits cost an average family over $3,000 a year."
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party of Illinois is running an ad attacking Karmeier as soft on crime.
"Judge Lloyd Karmeier let us down by giving reduced sentences to violent criminals," the ad states. "Five years ago, Karmeier caused outrage when he gave only probation to kidnappers who tortured and mutilated a 92-year-old grandmother to death. And despite objections, Karmeier reduced bail for a couple who beat their own child to death."
Even outside the state, business representatives and trial lawyers are interested in this two-man district race because it could be a bellwether on tort reform, which is an important issue to many states as well as nationally.
"To them, this is kind of a referendum on tort reform," Canary said.
When it comes to record-breaking money pouring into judicial races, Illinois isn't alone. States such as Ohio and West Virginia also are raising money for Supreme Court races at a record-setting pace. Candidates and interest groups in a two-person race for one open high court seat in West Virginia have raised more than $5 million, as have candidates for four Supreme Court seats in Ohio.
Overall, about $35 million has been raised so far in the 20 states that are holding contested Supreme Court elections this year. That amount has far outpaced the $29 million raised in 2002 -- when about the same number of candidates ran in contested Supreme Court races -- and is quickly approaching the record $45 million raised in 2000, when slightly more candidates filed in contested races than this year.
The 20 states with high court seats that will be filled on Nov. 2 are Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Texas, Washington and West Virginia.
When the elections are over, Rutledge predicts that campaign disclosures will demonstrate that special interests contributed more to judicial campaigns this election cycle than ever before and more than the $5 million being reported now.
"There's probably a lot more than $5 million out there," Rutledge said. "It's just that we haven't seen it yet."
With so much money in the coffers, spending on television advertising also is on track to break the record set in 2002, experts say. Already, more than $6 million has been spent on television commercials for Supreme Court elections in 15 states, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. In 2002, television ads appeared in nine states to the tune of about $8.4 million, the center reports.
"It's happening all over the country," Rutledge said. "We're seeing more money going in. ... There's more money and more television ads coming much earlier in the election cycle."
By contrast, North Carolina is bucking the trend and pioneering a public-financing program for Supreme Court races that is funded through a voluntary $3 check-off on the state's income-tax forms, money appropriated by the North Carolina General Assembly and donations from lawyers.
In addition, for the first time, North Carolina's judicial elections will be non-partisan. The state has introduced an information guide to acquaint voters with judicial candidates, who often are less well-known than candidates for legislative or executive posts.
Legislators and reformers in a host of other states are watching North Carolina's test run as a possible model for reforming their own judicial elections if things go smoothly, observers said.
In all, 38 states hold some sort of elections for Supreme Court justices. In the other 12 states, justices are appointed by the governor, similar to the federal system in which judges are appointed by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.