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After mixed success in getting pro-business judges elected to state supreme courts in past judicial elections, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has chalked up an overwhelming victory in the November 2004 races. In 15 supreme court races in a dozen states—including the two most contentious and closely watched races in Illinois and West Virginia—the chamber conducted “voter education” programs with partner groups or on its own. The goal? Making sure folks wearing black robes in state high courts favor “reform.” Remarkably, the chamber “won every race in which we were involved,” asserted Stanton D. Anderson, the chamber’s chief legal officer and coordinator of its legal reform activities. “We were very fortunate this time.” Getting a slate of tort-reform-friendly judges on the bench “is an example of what the business community can do,” said Anderson, who is also a partner in McDermott, Will & Emery’s Washington office and who was counsel to the Reagan-Bush 1980 campaign and deputy assistant secretary of state under President Nixon. Victories in West Virginia and Illinois suggest “the chamber of commerce had a pretty good go of it,” said Charles Geyh, professor at Indiana University School of Law-Bloomington and a judicial election expert. “They may well feel heartened” with their successes, so we “may well see more of it in the future.” Tort reform apparently resonated with voters, he said. Voters, however, don’t realize the chamber’s judicial campaigns are funded by insurance, tobacco, drug and chemical companies, said Carlton Carl, a spokesman for the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (ATLA). These businesses “have spent literally billions of dollars over the past 30 years trying to take away the rights of families,” he said. The chamber backs pro-business judges who will “do their bidding,” Carl said, noting that ATLA does not get involved in state judicial elections. The chamber pushing candidates who favor business is “completely misdirected,” claimed ATLA president Todd A. Smith of Power Rogers & Smith in Chicago. Judicial candidates are supposed to be independent and go into decisions open-minded, he said. “Anyone, even business, should want a fair, level playing field.” Though the 2004 judicial elections had a few bright spots—publicly financed elections in North Carolina and a growing number of states with campaign monitoring committees—there was plenty to illustrate a “crying need for reform,” said Bert Brandenburg, acting director of Justice at Stake, a nonpartisan group in Washington that tracks judicial elections and claims neutrality. “Certainly when you have any interest group treating its candidates like trophies on the wall, we do have a risk to fairness and impartiality of the courts,” Brandenburg said. Money and malice The chamber’s highest-profile victories came in the races noted for money and malice. In West Virginia, the chamber helped oust Democratic incumbent Supreme Court of Appeals Justice Warren McGraw and elect Republican Brent D. Benjamin of the corporate defense firm Robinson & McElwee in Charleston. West Virginians saw a nasty advertising war financed by millions from interest groups. The chamber is going to stay put in West Virginia with “a lot of focus, a lot of energy and a lot of resources,” Anderson said. The chamber also had a hand in the Illinois Supreme Court race, which crushed a previous judicial election fund-raising record of $4 million set in Alabama. The candidates alone reported raising a total of $9 million with interest groups adding to that. Vying for an open seat, Republican trial Judge Lloyd Karmeier beat Democrat Gordon Maag, an appeals court judge. In Illinois, attack ads were run by an abundance of groups as well as the political parties. An Illinois State Bar Association committee monitoring the campaigns rebuked both Maag and Karmeier and asked them to disavow or remove the ads, said David Anderson, assistant executive director of the bar. Both refused. Karmeier and Maag were battling to represent a southern Illinois district containing the tort-famed Madison County. The Illinois race was a high-profile contest for the chamber because of the Madison County issue, said chamber official Anderson. The trial court there is “probably the worst in the country” because of its favoritism to plaintiffs’ lawyers, he asserted. The chamber also scored victories in races for high courts in Mississippi, Ohio, Texas, Alabama, Arkansas and Michigan. In Mississippi, whose legislature passed tort reform in 2004, the chamber helped re-elect three incumbents and may get involved in backing the candidate challenging incumbent Justice James Graves in a Nov. 16 runoff, Anderson said. The chamber helped solidify the Republican majority on the Ohio Supreme Court. Two Republican incumbents defeated challengers, and Republican Judith Lanzinger was elected to an open seat. Three Republicans were elected to the Alabama Supreme Court, and Texas Supreme Court Justice Scott Brister, a Republican, defeated a Democratic challenger.

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