The Price of Justice

The Brennan Center for Justice, Justice at Stake, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics released a startling report today on the skyrocketing cost of state Supreme Court elections. The amount of money spent on state judicial races in the 38 states that have them has more than doubled in the 2000-2009 decade compared to the decade before, the report finds—and most of it has come from big spenders with big agendas, such as the Chamber of Commerce and trial lawyers’ groups.

The sway of big money over judicial elections, the report argues, is only likely to intensify in the post-Citizens United world, where big spenders will be able to pour more money into judicial races while “using shell organizations to keep their role out of the public eye.”

Take the case of Louis Butler, a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice who was nominated to fill a vacancy in the court in 2004, and four years later ran for a full term. Shortly after losing the election in 2008, Butler described his experience in a panel discussion at Georgetown. NPR reports:

"Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce decided at that point that: 'OK, we've had this court for all these years, we never had to worry about how the court voted. We get this new guy on the court, and all of a sudden we lose these three cases,' " Butler said. " 'He's gotta go.' "

And go he did, with the help of ads that tried to portray Butler, a former public defender, as soft on crime. One ad sponsored by the manufacturers and commerce group, the state's largest business lobby, began this way: "When our children go to school, they need to be safe. In our homes and neighborhoods, we need to be safe. Our sheriffs and district attorneys are on the front lines, protecting us. And you know what? Our judges need to know they also must protect us."

Executives at Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state's largest business advocacy group, say they were only protecting themselves when they spent $1 million on television ads against Butler. James Buchen, an executive at Wisconsin Manufacturers, said the court under Butler had ruled to expand punitive damage awards and malpractice claims under a fragile 4 to 3 majority.

President Obama has since twice nominated Butler to a federal judgeship—and Senate Republicans have twice sent his nomination back.

Corporate courts—whether elected or appointed—don’t happen by accident. And after Citizens United, the fight to keep courts from having pro-corporate biases has become even harder.
 

PFAW