Big Political Money Finds Another Target: Judges

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By Josh Eidelson,

from Bloomberg Businessweek,

Four years after the Citizens United decision, out of state cash is flowing down to state races.

Every eight years, Tennessee’s state judges go before voters and ask to keep their jobs. Based on a system adopted in Missouri decades ago, Tennessee’s approach was designed to limit partisanship in the judiciary by letting the people ratify appointments made by the state’s governor. Usually, these elections are sleepy affairs. Not this year.

In the weeks leading up to the Aug. 7 election, outside groups known for spending to influence presidential and congressional elections have been buying television and radio ads targeting three state supreme court justices. The state chapter of Americans for Prosperity, the conservative group backed by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, announced on July 22 that it was “launching a major new effort to educate the public on the liberal records” of the three justices, all Democratic appointees, using radio ads and direct mail.

Spending on judicial races has been ticking up along with overall election spending for the past decade, but the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, which lifted restrictions on political spending by groups unaffiliated with individual campaigns, has driven money into races once run on shoestring budgets. “After the Citizens United ruling, the focus on outside spending was of course on federal races,” says Denise Roth Barber, the managing director of the nonpartisan National Institute on Money in State Politics. “But then everybody figured out that they could do the same thing at the state races.”

Thirty-eight states put their high-court justices on the ballot. In the 2012 election, outside groups spent $15.4 million on state supreme court races—but that was with a presidential election driving ad rates up. This year the national total will likely be lower; spending in several states, however, is expected to hit new highs.

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Big Political Money Now Floods Judges’ Races, Too