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Among the special interest groups vying to shape the outcome of state supreme court elections, the business sector spent big—at record-shattering levels—and won big in 2004. For the first time since judicial campaign funding has been monitored, business-sector donations to state supreme court candidates exceeded contributions from attorneys, according to a report by Justice at Stake, a nonpartisan organization; the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law; and the Institute on Money in State Politics. The interest-group players in 2004 were essentially the same ones seen in previous judicial elections: business and medical groups on one side-sometimes in league with Republicans-arrayed against trial lawyers and labor unions, sometimes joined by Democrats. Contributions doubled In 2004, business interests doubled contributions to $15.8 million from the $8.4 million given in 2002, the report said. Meanwhile, lawyers contributed $11.6 million in 2004, just slightly more than the $10.8 million they gave in 2002. Interest groups have become very effective in “sophisticated, multiyear campaigns to reshape the bench,” the report said. Building massive war chests, they donated directly to candidates, gave to third-party conduit organizations and ran independent media campaigns, it said. In their own independent media campaigns, business and its partners spent nearly $7.5 million on television advertising airtime, with $5.7 million of that coming from the interest groups-not the party, the report said. That spending was significantly higher than the $4.5 million spent by trial lawyers, labor union groups and the Democrats. The bottom-line investment: business spent $21.5 million, while lawyers spent $13.3 million, the report said. “There is a . . . very well-defined strategy on the business side” to elect judges that favor liability reform, said Justice at Stake spokesman Jesse Rutledge. It paid off. In 2004, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s campaign in a dozen states for 15 state supreme court candidates claimed a near clean sweep. Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and West Virginia each had at least one interest group on both sides of the tort reform debate in 2004, the report notes. But business groups didn’t necessarily use tort reform to frame every campaign. In West Virginia, business and medical interests funded an organization specifically to defeat incumbent Justice Warren McGraw, and succeeded. With $2.4 million in funding from an energy company executive, the group-And for the Sake of the Kids-raised a total of $3.6 million. The campaign financed an ad saying the incumbent voted to release a child rapist and allowed him to work in a school. The ad labeled him “radical” and “too soft on crime.” Trial lawyers answered with ads sponsored by their group, West Virginia Consumers for Justice, but raised only half the money of their opponents. Business interests also prevailed in arguably the highest-profile supreme court race of 2004: the battle for an open seat on the Illinois Supreme Court. With contributions from business and lawyers, the two candidates combined to raise $9.3 million, smashing a 2000 single-race record of $4.9 million for an Alabama high court seat. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce alone donated more than $2 million to the Illinois Republican Party, which contributed nearly all of that to the campaign of Lloyd Karmeier, who defeated Gordon Maag for the job. The report illustrates the tangled flow of millions of dollars from political action committees, political parties and others to the Karmeier and Maag campaigns. These are “troubling” trends, said Charles Geyh, an Indiana University School of Law professor. “The line between judges and legislators is blurring.” Lisa A. Rickard, president of the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, said that the “effort there is not to surpass anyone from a money perspective.” Rather, the chamber is trying to elect “people who are liability restrainers on these courts,” she said. The U.S. chamber and state chambers collaborate on judicial campaigns so “average Joes and consumers understand the impact these races are having,” she said. “We fully expect to see the momentum continue.” Association of Trial Lawyers of America President Todd A. Smith asserted that the chamber and others have in effect “declared war” on judicial independence. But Smith added that lawyers can’t answer with more and more money. “It can’t be a money answer. It has to be an appeal to the American people to recognize what’s going on here.”

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