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The U.S. chamber of Commerce’s $10 million campaign to affect several elections involving state supreme court judges produced mixed results in the Nov. 7 election. Its highest-profile effort, an attempt to oust Ohio Supreme Court Justice Alice Robie Resnick, fell flat. Resnick, whom the Chamber accused of favoring trial lawyers and unions in her opinions after she had received campaign contributions from them, was re-elected with 57 percent of the votes. But in other states, there were mainly good results for the Chamber and its multi-million effort. Six Chamber-backed candidates were elected, and a seventh is in a runoff. But in Mississippi, where the Chamber also focused and where its ads sparked a multi-jurisdictional court fight, the incumbent Republican Supreme Court chief justice backed by the business group was unseated. Officially, the Chamber’s ads were aimed at educating the public, not swaying voters, says James Wootton, president of the Institute for Legal Reform, a Chamber affiliate created in 1998 to counter big spending in judicial races by trial lawyers. That let the organization avoid saying who financed the spots and how much they gave. Besides running so-called issue advocacy ads about candidates’ traits that it admired and condemned, the Chamber separately endorsed candidates in the same judicial races. It also made endorsements in five Alabama Supreme Court races, but spent no money. CHAMBER, TRIAL LAWYER SPIN Overall, Wootton says, the effort was a success and more ads are coming in future judicial elections. The advertising “marks an increased commitment” by businesses to play a part in the selecting of judges, he says. “The bar would have you believe they are a royal priesthood” when it comes to wielding influence in selecting judges, Wootton says. “Obviously the voters were not fooled by the negative campaign business ran” in Ohio, says Fred K. Baron, president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America and a partner at the Dallas firm of Baron & Budd. Criticizing the spending by both sides is Alfred P. Carlton Jr., chairman of the American Bar Association’s committee on judicial independence and a partner at the Sanford Holshouser Law Firm in Raleigh, N.C. Big-money campaigns force candidates to seek contributions from lawyers and businesses, which creates public doubt about judges’ impartiality, says Carlton. “There has to be a different way,” he says, adding that his committee hopes to find it. His message got some support from Baron. Trial lawyers have seen state supreme court candidates that they generously backed be rejected by voters, he says. High-profile advertising “usually hurts the candidate,” he says. “People don’t like that kind of influence in judicial elections.” The U.S. Chamber’s sharpest attack was on Ohio Justice Resnick, who enraged business and Republican forces with opinions striking down a “tort reform” statute and declaring the state’s schools unconstitutionally underfunded. The tort statute limited damages, among other things. It was struck as a legislative incursion into the courts. Before the national group entered the picture, Resnick was already the subject of critical ads run by a business group linked to the Ohio Chamber of Commerce. The group, Citizens for a Strong Ohio, spent millions of dollars running commercials criticizing the justice and praising her Republican challenger, Judge Terrence O’Donnell of the Cleveland Appeals Court. A political action committee raised about $800,000 from trial lawyers and union members for pro-Resnick ads and attacks on her opponent. In a second Ohio Supreme Court race, a Republican incumbent, Justice Deborah Cook, fought off a challenge from Democrat Timothy S. Black, a Cincinnati municipal court judge. In Mississippi, state and federal litigation over the Chamber’s ads meant that they were on-again, off-again as election day neared, Wootton says. A federal judge ruled in one case that the ads were express advocacy, not voter education, rejecting the Chamber’s effort to seek a declaratory judgment affirming its right to run the ads without disclosures. The Chamber plans to appeal, says Wootton. Two of the four Supreme Court justices that the Chamber supported, Kay Cobb and Jim Smith, were re-elected. A third, Justice Keith Starrett, is in a runoff. Chief Justice Lenore L. Prather, who was backed by a Chamber ad that she disavowed, was defeated. In Alabama, the U.S. Chamber didn’t run ads for the partisan judicial elections, but it endorsed the five Republicans running for Supreme Court, all of whom were elected. One of the five is Roy Moore, a trial judge who became famous for refusing to remove the Ten Commandments from his Gadsden, Ala., courtroom. Moore was elected chief justice, defeating two-term Alabama Court of Civil Appeals Judge Sharon Yates, a Democrat. In Michigan, more than $3 million filled the coffers of Republicans and Democrats in a nominally nonpartisan battle for three Supreme Court positions. Three GOP incumbents won easily. Ads run by the challengers, who raised about $1.6 million, alleged that justices Stephen Markman, Clifford Taylor and Robert Young Jr. had received hundreds of thousands of dollars from businesses and ruled in their favor 82 percent of the time. With what Wootton called substantial financial support, businesses and the state Chamber of Commerce fought back. The Republicans fought off challenges from Circuit Court Judge Edward Thomas, attorney Marietta Robinson and Court of Appeals Judge Thomas Fitzgerald. In Illinois, the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce endorsed judicial candidates, picking Republican state Senator Carl E. Hawkinson, a tort reform proponent competing for an open seat against Thomas Kilbride, a Rock Island lawyer. Just before the election, the Democratic Party gave the Kilbride campaign $350,000 and the AFL-CIO Illinois pledged $100,000. Kilbride defeated Hawkinson, increasing the Democratic majority on the seven-member court to five.

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