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Special interest groups gave millions of dollars to judicial candidates in the month before this month’s elections, but failed to defeat their opponents in some of the tightest races in the country. In the most expensive race, various business groups were unable to win the retention of the incumbent chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. A former appellate judge defeated the Republican candidate to become the sole Democrat on the state high court. In Georgia, an affiliate of the National Association of Manufacturers bankrolled a series of last-ditch television ads for a state Supreme Court candidate who lost after being accused of threatening to kill his sister. In Illinois, special interest groups sparked one of the most expensive appellate court races in U.S. history. And a Supreme Court race in Kentucky pitting an anti-abortion candidate against a self-declared impartial judge dealt a setback for judicial First Amendment advocates. “Business groups continue to spend a lot of money in a number of these campaigns,” said Jesse Rutledge, communications director of the Justice at Stake Campaign, a bipartisan group in Washington that tracks judicial elections. But unlike in past election cycles, “this year, their investments, it appears, did not pay off.” Cash Competition Among the five Alabama Supreme Court races, Sue Bell Cobb, the challenger for chief justice, was the only Democrat to win. Campaigning as a churchgoing mother, Cobb raised more than $1.85 million in cash contributions from several political action committees (PACs) and the state Democratic Executive Committee. Chief Justice Drayton Nabers Jr., who boasted an anti-abortion stance in TV ads, raised $3.9 million in cash contributions from state tort reform PACs. The American Taxpayers Alliance, a group that has received funds from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, paid for Nabers’ ads in the primaries. Although Nabers outspent her, Cobb acknowledged how much she raised in contributions. “We were very cognizant of the fact that we had to have sufficient resources to prevail,” she said. “Do I think that’s an attractive part of the process? No, I do not. Do I want that to change? Yes, I do.” Georgia hosted one of the most negative judicial campaigns in U.S. history as special interest groups waded into the race during its final weeks. Mike Wiggins, an attorney for the Bush administration, raised about $275,000 for a Supreme Court seat. But the Safety and Prosperity Coalition, an independent committee that received contributions from the American Justice Partnership, an affiliate of the National Association of Manufacturers, paid for several ads accusing incumbent Justice Carol Hunstein of ignoring case law and being soft on crime, according to Justice at Stake. Dan Pero, president of the American Justice Partnership, said he feared Hunstein would legislate from the bench. In response, Hunstein launched an ad accusing Wiggins of having been sued by his mother for money and allegedly threatening to kill his sister when she was eight months pregnant. Hunstein is the first judicial candidate in Georgia to raise nearly $1 million in a campaign, mostly from trial lawyers. Illinois faced a record-breaking race for 5th Appellate Court, home to Madison County, nationally known for its plaintiff-friendly verdicts. Saline County Presiding Judge Bruce Stewart, a Democrat, defeated Republican incumbent Steve McGlynn, who raised $2.1 million, mostly in last-minute contributions from the American Tort Reform Association, the Illinois Republican Party and the American Justice Partnership. Stewart, with about $900,000, received support from labor unions and the Democratic Party of Illinois. Pero of the American Justice Partnership said, “this was not particularly a good year in a lot of parts of the country to have an ‘R’ by your name.” But he predicted more groups would help finance future appellate races. While not the most expensive, the race for a Kentucky Supreme Court seat exemplified the debate over whether judicial candidates should make political or legal statements. Pledging impartiality, Circuit Judge Bill Cunningham defeated Rick Johnson, a Court of Appeals judge who campaigned against abortion. “The candidates who take a more aggressive First Amendment approach are consistently meeting with failure at the ballot box,” Rutledge said. This article originally appeared in the National Law Journal , a publication of ALM.

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