Speaking at an August 13 panel on corporate spending in judicial elections, Montana Supreme Court Justice James Nelson and former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz Jr. warned that the growth of corporate interest spending is hurting public confidence in the courts, scaring lawyers away from seeking judgeships and raising the specter of corruption.

Nelson and Diaz spoke as part of an event in Washington in which two new studies by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, were released on campaign contributions in state judicial elections.

Diaz disputed the line of thinking that an appointed judiciary is always better than an elected judiciary – appointments can be political, he said – but noted that too many people inside and outside of the courts believe that campaign dollars influence judicial outcomes. “That’s a sad state of affairs,” he said.

He said that in 1990, a winning state supreme court justice candidate in Mississippi spent about $25,000. By 2000, he said, a winning campaign could cost $1 million. He said corporations and special interest groups “saw the opportunity there and started putting money into the judicial elections.”

Nelson said the difference between judicial elections and other elections is that unlike legislative or executive candidates, judges often don’t have the same name recognition. “The opportunity is there to define a judge,” he said. If an outside group has the money to run ads that define a judge in a certain way and the candidate doesn’t have the money to respond, he said, “it’s easy to pick off a judge.”

Both men cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission as opening the door to corporate spending in judicial elections in the same way it did for legislative and executive elections.

Diaz, who lost his seat in 2008, spoke about the role of ads funded by outside groups in that election. He said some ads used certain issues to “inflame” the public, such as his reversal of criminal convictions, instead of highlighting the issues that a particular interest group wanted to pursue after the election.

He said that lawyers are increasingly shying away from pursuing judgeships and trial judges are pausing before pursuing appellate seats for fear of being tied up in a big-money negative campaign.

Nelson said corruption of the judiciary was a real risk. He warned that as long as there is a free market economy, “I don’t think anything is sacrosanct.” He called for more public disclosure of campaign spending and contributions. “Get the facts out, get the truth out, make it prominent,” he said.

Contact Zoe Tillman at ztillman@alm.com.