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This fall’s judicial elections are not anticipated to draw the same level of outside private interest groups and high fundraising dollars that have characterized races in recent years due in part to a growing backlash against judges who engage in negative campaigning and a ballot that includes other races competing for cash. Record fundraising campaigns and increasing involvement of private interest groups in judicial races have drawn criticism and calls for reforms in the past few years. So far, two states, Alabama and Washington, both of which have witnessed ugly judicial campaigns in the past, are noticeably quiet in the months leading up to their fall elections. In two other states, Michigan and West Virginia, private interest groups are expected to get involved in high-profile races, but the overall dollars and level of negative campaigning could be minimal. “This is not going to be as big of a spending cycle as in 2006 or 2004, which set the records,” said Charlie Hall, a spokesman for the Justice at Stake Campaign, a bipartisan group in Washington, D.C., that tracks state judicial elections. Only in Mississippi, which has four slots on the state’s Supreme Court up for grabs, are elections anticipated to draw private interest groups and considerable cash. ‘Bruising, ugly, unhappy’ In Washington state, the primaries in three Supreme Court races, two of which are contested, take place on Aug. 19. In 2006, the state’s judicial primaries attracted negative campaigning from numerous private interest groups. This time, no private interest group has emerged, and fundraising has been limited. “I know there was a serious backlash among the public with the tactics these groups engaged in on both sides,” said Michael J. Bond, founding partner of Seattle’s Gardner Bond Trabolsi, who is running against Washington Supreme Court Justice Mary Fairhurst this week. Early on, he wanted no part of negative campaigning, and private interest groups got the message, he said. Erin Shannon, public relations director at the Building Industry Association of Washington, which paid for several ads two years ago, acknowledged that recent criticism against candidates backed by private interest groups has influenced its decision not to participate in this year’s primaries. Unlike in 2006, none of the candidates wants that type of campaign, she said. “That’s true in large part,” said Bill Baker, chairman of the Washington Committee for Ethical Judicial Campaigns, a volunteer group formed this year to monitor ethics in judicial elections. “It was a bruising, ugly, unhappy experience for everybody involved, and I can well understand why they had trouble recruiting a candidate.” So many races But he also noted that private interest groups primarily are focused on financing candidates in other races, such as the gubernatorial election. Such is the case in Alabama, which historically has run the most expensive campaigns in the nation. In the race for an open seat on the state Supreme Court, the Democrat, former Lauderdale County District Judge Deborah Bell Paseur, is running against Greg Shaw, a Republican and a judge on the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals. Jim Spearman, executive director of the Alabama Democratic Party, which poured considerable support two years ago behind Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb, now the lone Democrat on the supreme court, said the judicial race would be overshadowed by the U.S. presidential race and other congressional elections in the state. “I don’t see anybody backing away from it right now,” he said. “But I don’t know if it will be in the same numbers that we saw in the chief justice’s race. We have so many races.” J. Mark White, president of the Alabama State Bar, said the dollars involved in this race would be “substantially less” than in past years. In Michigan, a high-profile judicial race that could determine the ideological balance of the Michigan Supreme Court is being eclipsed by a controversial ballot proposal that, among other things, would eliminate two positions on the state’s highest court. Last month, the Michigan Democratic Party, whose chairman, Mark Brewer, supports the proposal, funded a television ad implying that Chief Justice Cliff Taylor, who is running for re-election, would rule the initiative unconstitutional if a court challenge appeared before him. The Michigan Democratic Party has indicated that it would fund future television ads in a campaign against Taylor. But Colleen Pero, Taylor’s campaign director, said she doubted that this race would reach the record millions of dollars that dominated judicial elections in 2000. “By this time in 2000, we were in our third week of negative ads against three Republicans running for re-election,” she said. Calmer in West Virginia West Virginia’s election, which involves two Democrats and one Republican vying for two seats on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, is anticipated to skirt a recent scandal that is now at the center of a petition recently filed before the U.S. Supreme Court. The petition addresses whether Justice Brent Benjamin should have recused himself from a case before the supreme court involving the chief executive of Massey Energy Co., one of his major political contributors. Another judge on the bench, Chief Justice Elliott E. Maynard, removed himself from the case after photos emerged depicting him alongside the chief executive in the French Riviera. The scandal crushed Maynard, a Republican, in this year’s May primaries. This fall’s election will be “nowhere near” the level seen during the primaries, said Roman Stauffer, campaign manager for Beth Walker, a partner at Charleston, W.Va.-based Bowles Rice McDavid Graff & Love, who is the sole Republican candidate. In Mississippi, where four Supreme Court seats are up for grabs this November, private interest groups are still anticipated to play a big role in the elections. “As far as any private interest groups on behalf of our opponent, I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will come into Mississippi and spend hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars trying to discredit the name of my candidate, Jim Kitchens, and at least one other candidate for a Supreme Court seat in another district,” said Sam Hall, campaign manager for Kitchens, a partner at Jackson, Miss.-based Kitchens & Ellis who is running against two candidates, including Chief Justice Jim Smith. Smith did not return a call for comment. The recent criminal case against prominent plaintiffs’ attorney Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, who pleaded guilty to bribing a judge and was sentenced to five years in federal prison, has clouded the state’s judicial elections. Candidates have debated about recent calls for reform, including a change toward merit selection. And Hall said the Chamber, armed with the Scruggs incident, would likely spend about $1 million on all four races in Mississippi. In one race, Presiding Justice Oliver Diaz Jr., who was indicted a few years ago on charges of bribing judges, is running against two candidates. Diaz, who faced considerable opposition from the Chamber in past races, was later cleared of the charges. A call to the Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal Reform was not returned. Associate Justice Charles “Chuck” Easley, who is running against Mississippi Court of Appeals Judge David Chandler, admitted that his race is under the radar so far. As of July 10, Chandler has raised $125,838, compared to Easley’s $995. But that would change soon, he said. “It might heat up next month,” Easley said. “I’m going to squash him like a cockroach.” Chandler did not return a call for comment.

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