Change was in the air among the country's most prominent state judicial races last week as the Wall Street meltdown and a growing frustration about outside private interest groups contributing millions of dollars to elections helped unseat several incumbent candidates -- particularly those with business supporters.
"Obviously, it's now a benefit that comes with a cost," said Charlie Hall, a spokesman for the Justice at Stake Campaign, a bipartisan organization in Washington that tracks state judicial elections. "Whether it's perceived that a candidate is taking money from special interests, it seemed to be an issue raised with more effect this year."
In one of the most surprising upsets, Michigan Chief Justice Cliff Taylor, a Republican, lost to Democrat Diane Marie Hathaway, 49 percent to 39 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.
Ads paid for by the Michigan Democratic Party portrayed Taylor as literally sleeping on the job and a "good soldier" for businesses. Ads paid for by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the Michigan Republican Party portrayed Hathaway, a Wayne County Circuit Court judge, as being soft on terrorists and sexual predators, with one image showing an Arab-American holding an assault rifle.
In the end, Taylor's business support worked against him, Hall said. With Wall Street collapsing, the idea of supporting a judicial candidate with corporate donors "rings worse" than it would have four years ago, he said.
Another surprise blow involved Mississippi Chief Justice Jim Smith, who was criticized for his ties to business groups. Smith, whose television ads were paid for by private interest groups such as Mississippians for Economic Progress, lost to Jim Kitchens, an attorney, who received 54 percent of the vote.
Sam Hall, campaign manager for Kitchens, said the problems on Wall Street aided in defeating Smith.
"This was a court that ruled 88 percent of the time on behalf of businesses, when businesses were found negligent against an individual in the lower court," he said.
Two other incumbents, neither with significant business support, were also unseated in the state. Presiding Justice Oliver Diaz Jr., who was indicted a few years ago on bribery and tax evasion charges but later cleared, was defeated by Chancery Judge Randy Pierce. Diaz had been backed by plaintiffs' attorneys. Also, Associate Justice Charles Easley was defeated by Mississippi Court of Appeals Judge David Chandler.
But Hall said that, whether backed by businesses or plaintiffs' attorneys, judicial candidates exploited the message, more so than ever before, that their opponents had been "bought" by their donors.
In Alabama, Republican Greg Shaw, a judge on the state's Court of Criminal Appeals, defeated Democrat Deborah Bell Paseur, a retired district judge, with a slim 50.4 percent majority that was declared on Nov. 5. But Paseur made inroads in attempting to discredit Shaw for accepting 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 amid accusations that he vacationed in the French Riviera with an executive who had a case pending before him, two Democratic candidates narrowly defeated a Republican for two seats on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.
One of those Democrats, Margaret Workman, a former West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals judge, said voters expressed dissatisfaction with judges beholden to special interests in rejecting Beth Walker, a Republican who received significant financial support from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other outside groups five days before the election.