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The battles for state supreme court seats are heating up in at least six states as another year of expensive and hotly contested elections begins. Next year’s races in Alabama, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin are expected to draw financial support from private interest groups. In recent months, judges facing re-election in two of those states have resigned; another is being pressured to step down. Meanwhile, judges in Idaho and Pennsylvania who have endured political attacks have chosen not to run for re-election. Finally, legislative proposals planned for next year could overhaul the way in which judges are selected in Missouri and Minnesota. “We’re looking at a very busy year,” said Jesse Rutledge, communications director of the Justice at Stake Campaign, a bipartisan group in Washington that tracks state judicial elections. As private interest groups are poised for action, “there appear to be an increasing number of established members of state courts taking a pass for election because they don’t want to go through the ringer.” Races drawing cash Voters are expected to select nearly 40 state supreme court seats next year. At the top is Alabama, where private interest groups have poured record amounts of money into state Supreme Court races. The race “is going to be a major priority for us,” said Jesse McDaniel, communications director for the Alabama Democratic Party, which succeeded last year in replacing the incumbent chief justice with the sole Democrat on the Alabama Supreme Court. “It’s imperative we elect a Democrat to that seat next year.” In Alabama, the race pits both parties in a struggle to shift the political balance on the court. Republicans are aiming to retain their dominance of the court, while Democrats are moving forward to unseat another Republican. The leading Democratic candidate, Lauderdale County District Judge Deborah Bell Paseur, has raised more than $50,000. She said she expected next year’s election to rival the costs of last year’s campaigns. Meanwhile, the Republicans have attracted numerous candidates. “This is a seat that we want to hold on to and not lose any more ground to Democrats on our state Supreme Court,” said John Ross, executive director of the Alabama Republican Party. The winner would replace Justice Harold See, a Republican, who announced this past summer that he would retire rather than seek a third term next year. See, whose past campaigns involved presidential adviser Karl Rove, said the potential for a negative campaign next year did not influence his decision, which was “more of a question of what I believed I was supposed to do in my life.” In Washington, two state Supreme Court judges run for re-election next year. A third spot replaces Justice Bobbe Bridge, who announced she would retire by year’s end. The governor appoints a replacement to run for election. The question remains whether private interest groups, who funneled $2.7 million into state supreme court primaries last year, will influence next year’s elections. “Because there was so much money that came in, we’re interested in whether that was an aberration,” said Chief Justice Gerry Alexander, who faced negative attacks from conservative private interest groups last year in his re-election campaign. One ad involved his support of Bridge, who was charged with drunken driving in 2003. Bridge didn’t return calls for comment. West Virginia has two Supreme Court of Appeals seats up for grabs. In recent weeks, Justice Larry Starcher, a Democrat, has been criticized for referring to a Pakistani lawyer representing a Pakistani client as “window dressing” and an “argument prop.” Starcher, who did not return calls, has not announced whether he plans to run for re-election. But most of the candidates, which include four Democrats, assume he won’t. Wisconsin is gearing up for another big fight for a high court seat next year. Supreme Court Justice Louis Butler has raised more than $175,000. Sachin Chheda, Butler’s campaign director, said he expects to maintain a record pace of fundraising. If Butler were unseated, the ideological balance of the Wisconsin Supreme Court would tilt in favor of manufacturers, said Jim Pugh, spokesman for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, a manufacturing association that has participated in state Supreme Court races in recent years. In Wisconsin, business groups have criticized the state’s highest court for issuing rulings that overturn caps on medical malpractice awards, ease restrictions on punitive damages and expand the “risk contribution” theory to include lead paint manufacturers. In Idaho, Chief Justice Gerald Schroeder and Justice Linda Copple Trout stepped down from the bench rather than face re-election next year. In 2002, a conservative private interest group spent $175,000 in television ads depicting Trout as a liberal judge. Trout had spent $20,000 to $40,000. “It was an unpleasant situation because of the fear of losing my job and then having the last-minute attack ads come out that were very difficult for me to counteract in such a short period of time,” Trout said. “I really didn’t want to do it again.” In Pennsylvania, Chief Justice Ralph J. Cappy, who was up for re-election in 2009, announced last month he would step down at the end of the year. His announcement follows the retirement of Justice Sandra Schultz Newman, who would have been up for reelection on Nov. 6, along with a second Supreme Court slot. An incumbent judge also is running for retention. The retirements come as a group called PACleanSweep has criticized state judges who failed to return money granted to them under a 2005 pay raise, which has since been repealed. Two legislative proposals are expected next year that would change the way in which judges are selected in two states. In Minnesota, where three Supreme Court slots are up for election next year, the Minnesota State Bar Association recently passed a resolution that would select judges by appointment and allow a performance evaluation commission to choose whether to retain them. A state commission issued an alternative proposal that would allow voters to vote on judges’ retention. That system is more akin to the “Missouri plan,” which is under attack in its home state. Legislators in Missouri are expected to introduce proposals early next year designed to derail the selection system after a conservative special interest group, the Adam Smith Foundation, alleged political cronyism in the process.

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