Change was in the air among the country's most prominent judicial races, as two chief justices and two supreme court incumbents were unseated on Tuesday after weeks of negative television ads and millions of dollars of fundraising.
"In the end, there was more of the same: Too much money and too much negative advertising, and a whole tone of campaigning that undermines the confidence in the courts," said Charlie Hall, a spokesman for the Justice at Stake Campaign, a bipartisan organization in Washington, D.C., that tracks state judicial elections.
In the final weeks before Election Day, almost $5 million was spent on television ads, boosting the total amount on the airwaves to $17 million, slightly more than in 2006.
In one of the most surprising upsets, Michigan Chief Justice Cliff Taylor, a Republican, lost to Democrat Diane Marie Hathaway, 39 percent to 49 percent. Taylor raised $1.8 million, breaking his own record of $1.3 million set in 2000, according to Hall. Hathaway raised about $420,000.
The state dominated with the most negative TV ads: Ads paid for by the Michigan Democratic Party portrayed Taylor as literally sleeping on the job and a "good soldier" to businesses; ads paid for by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the Michigan Republican Party portrayed Hathaway, a Wayne County Circuit Court judge, of being soft on terrorists and sexual predators, with one image showing an Arab-American holding an assault rifle. Another ad suggested that Hathaway wanted the job for more vacation time.
"In Michigan, once the state Democrats hit Cliff Taylor with negative advertising, the other side fired back with both barrels and, really, it was an absolute food fight for the rest of the campaign," Hall said.
Another surprise blow involved Mississippi Chief Justice Jim Smith, who was criticized for his ties to business groups. Smith, who was backed by Mississippians for Economic Progress, lost to Jim Kitchens, an attorney in Crystal Springs, who received 54 percent of the vote.
Two other incumbents were unseated in the state. Presiding Justice Oliver Diaz Jr., who was indicted a few years ago on bribery and tax evasion charges but was later cleared, was defeated by Chancery Judge Randy "Bubba" Pierce. The Law Enforcement Alliance of America, based in Virginia, was forced to withdraw a TV ad that criticized Diaz as soft on criminals. Also, associate Justice Charles "Chuck" Easley was defeated by Mississippi Court of Appeals Judge David Chandler.
Only one incumbent, Justice Ann Hannaford Lamar, defeated her opponent, Gene Barton, a lawyer.
One of the closest races was in Alabama, where Republican Greg Shaw, a judge on the state's Court of Criminal Appeals, defeated Democrat Deborah Bell Paseur, a retired district judge in Lauderdale County, with a 50.4 percent majority that was declared on Wednesday morning.
As has been the case for years in Alabama, which has no fundraising limits, the race was the most expensive in the nation. Shaw and Paseur, who was backed by the Alabama Democratic Party and lawyers, raised a total of $3.8 million, according to Hall. Shaw also received support from the Center for Individual Freedom, a Virginia group that paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for ads supporting his campaign.
In West Virginia, where former Chief Justice Elliott Maynard was unseated earlier this year during the primaries, two Democratic candidates defeated a Republican for two seats on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. The races failed to transform into the contentiousness of the primaries, when images surfaced of Maynard and a coal mining executive, who had a case pending before the state's highest court, vacationing in the French Riviera.
Democrat Menis Ketchum, a lawyer, won 35 percent of the vote, while the other Democrat, Margaret Workman, a former judge on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, won about 33 percent. Both defeated lawyer Beth Walker, the Republican.
In Texas, the state's Democratic Party made an unusual push for the Texas Supreme Court, whose members are all Republicans, by investing $1 million in TV ads for three Democratic candidates vying for slots on the state's highest court, Hall said. All three lost.
A bigger threat in Texas came in Houston, where the Harris County Republican Party spent $1.6 million on a campaign, including television ads, to retain the 26 Republican trial judges running for reelection. Of those, 22 were unseated by Democratic challengers.
Also, on Tuesday, voters endorsed merit selection of judges, rather than elections, in Greene County, Mo., and Johnson County, Kansas, according to Justice at Stake.