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Independent spending on state supreme court elections by state parties and special interest groups in 2009-10 increased 60 percent over spending in elections four years earlier with a few “super spenders” dominating the money pot, according to a new report. Independent activities accounted for $11.5 million, or 29.8% of all money spent to elect high court judges. In 2005-06, outside groups represented about 18% of the total spending, said the report by the Brennan Center for Justice, the National Institute on Money in State Politics, and Justice at Stake. “Moreover, to a significantly greater degree than in 2005–06, the spending was driven by a few powerful special-interest groups in 2009-10,” reported the groups. “Of the nearly $38.4 million raised and spent on state high court elections, just 10 groups accounted for nearly $15 million (including direct contributions to candidates, as well as independent expenditures) — or 38.7 percent of every dollar spent on all state high court elections. By comparison, the top 10 groups in 2005-06 accounted for $11.4 million, or 26.7 percent of total spending.” The top 10 big spenders in 2009-10 included the Michigan Republican Party, $4.07 million; Partnership for Ohio’s Future (Chamber of Commerce), $1.57 million; Illinois Democratic Party, $1.47 million; Michigan Democratic Party, $1.55 million; Pennsylvania Republican Party $1.45 million; Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association, $1.37 million; Business Council of Alabama, $1.29 million; Law Enforcement Alliance of America, $803,770; Illinois Civil Justice League, $688,000; and the National Organization for Marriage, $635,627. “In 2009–10, business and conservative groups dominated the national list of 10 super spenders, accounting for seven of the top 10 groups, and for $10.5 million of the $14.9 million spent,” the report states. “This disparity differs from the 2007-08 biennium, when the left and the right spent roughly equal amounts.” The most expensive high court elections were in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio, where the courts are closely divided by party or judicial philosophy. “The rise in spending by non-candidate groups means that many judicial candidates have become bystanders in their own campaigns, watching the action from the sidelines,” said report co-author Adam Skaggs of the Brennan Center. “We expect judges to be impartial and fair. Now with campaign laws weakening, citizens understandably worry that justice is for sale.” The report notes a new element in judicial campaign spending: retention elections — where incumbents face yes or no votes — are no longer immune from big spending. The report states that “unprecedented” fundraising by the opposition took place in four states in 2009-10: Illinois, Alaska, Colorado and Iowa. Nearly $4.9 million was spent, with incumbents raising $2.8 million and independent groups spending near $2.1 million. The retention election in Iowa drew national attention and outside money when opponents successfully sought to unseat three justices who voted to strike down a state law banning same-sex marriage. “In the entire decade from 2000 to 2009, a time when special-interest spending skyrocketed on judicial elections, retention elections remained largely immune to big-money politics,” said the report. “With only incumbents appearing on the ballot, and voters deciding `yes’ or `no’ on whether to grant another term, candidates in retention elections raised just $2.2 million nationally in 2000–09, barely 1% of the nearly $207 million raised by high court candidates overall. By contrast, retention elections accounted for 12.7% of all judicial election spending in 2009-10, including independent election campaigns.” Contact Marcia Coyle at [email protected].

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