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October 2012
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Dear Subscriber,

Fair and impartial justice is a bedrock principle in America. Yet, narrow interest groups are spending millions on state judicial contests to stack the courts with judges that see things their way. Take a closer look with our 2012 voter's guide.

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Follow the Money Trail Before You Vote

Impartial Courts “Under Attack”

Triangle "... the perception that justice is for sale will undermine the rule of law..." Former U.S. Supreme Court Judge Sandra Day O'Connor

Most Americans agree that our courts should be above politics and government, where money and influence often seem to favor wealthy interests. After all, where else but the courts does the average Joe or Jane have a fighting chance against the powerful? This bedrock principle was cited in the Declaration of Independence after King George tried to stack the colonial courts with pro-British judges, and was later protected by the authors of the U.S. Constitution. “An independent judiciary is to tyrants as sunlight to vampires,” quipped a pundit in a recent editorial.

But starting in the early 1990s, “super spenders” dominated by business and conservative groups began pouring money into judicial campaigns at an unprecedented rate. The tab for state Supreme Court campaigns more than doubled to $206 million from 2000 to 2009 compared to $83.3 million from 1990 to 1999, according to the New Politics of Judicial Elections 2000-2009, a landmark study by the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice. Along with the cash has come a surge in nasty television ads, which often focus on red herring issues that mask the real agenda of the sponsoring organizations.

Since then, the situation has only grown worse. “Now the lavish spending by interest groups and the politicization of state court judgeships is spreading from races between two or more judicial candidates to the ‘retention’ ballots that were supposed to shield judges from the rough-and-tumble of the election cycle,” wrote the New York Times in a 2010 editorial. In Iowa, three Supreme Court justices were swept out of office by a well-financed campaign by right-wing interests opposed to a single controversial decision. “The aim is to send a chilling message to judges beyond Iowa’s borders to beware of rendering opinions that some voter blocs might dislike,” remarked the Times writers.

According to a new report from the Brennan Center, the court wars are also moving into state legislatures, where the same business and political coalitions are trying to intimidate judges through impeachment proceedings, budget cuts and rollbacks on laws designed to ensure an impartial judiciary. The U.S. Supreme Court decision Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission will only add fuel to the fire by allowing unlimited corporate spending in political campaigns, including judicial races.

“This branch of government is under attack,” declared Iowa Supreme Court Chief Judge Mark S. Cady.

image 1 Visit the "Your State" National Map from Justice at Stake and get your state overview.

2012 Judicial Elections Voter Guide

The 2012 elections will include 46 contested Supreme Court seats in 20 states. Download this guide to identify the races in your state and visit the “Your State” National Map for more background. Then consider the following as you prepare to vote:

  • Follow the money ... not always easy as some organizations take advantage of lax disclosure laws to hide contributions. To thwart such efforts, the National Institute on Money in State Politics built a massive database that reveals the economic interests behind contributions in every state contest. Start by entering your address in Find My District.
  • Look under the hood ... rather than relying on sensational or misleading television ads. Consult multiple sources, including biographical information, news accounts and campaign materials. Look for nonpartisan organizations that publish performance ratings based on legal knowledge, personal integrity, judicial temperament, administrative skill and public service.
  • Dont vote one decision ... but instead assess a judge’s entire performance. Our system of justice depends on impartial courts that protect everyone’s rights even when a decision is controversial. If courts start yielding to political pressure, it might be your rights that are compromised by future rulings.

And in the future ...

  • Demand tougher laws ... requiring judges to excuse themselves from a decision if there is a conflict of interest with a major donor.
  • Support open disclosure ... with laws that alert voters to the true identities of those behind campaign contributions and political ads.

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Former Judge Warns of Threat to the Integrity of Our Judiciary

A 1996 retention vote put former Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Penny J. White right in the middle of the debate about the impact of special interests and politics on the judiciary.

Listen now

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