The Midwest Democracy Network and the Justice at Stake Campaign have released a new report that examines the influence that special interests–corporate interests, trial lawyers, ideological groups, and partisan political groups–having on elections for state judges in the Midwest. The report, titled “The New Politics of Judicial Elections in the Great Lakes, 2000-2008,” examines recent judicial elections in Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio. Some important findings include:
* Of the 22 states nationally that use contestable elections to choose members of their high courts, three of the most expensive can be found in the Midwest (Illinois, Ohio and Michigan).
* More than half of all television advertisements that have appeared in state Supreme Court races since 2000 have aired in one of these three states.
* The most expensive contested judicial election in American history took place in Illinois in 2004, when two candidates combined to raise over $9.3 million. (The winner called the fundraising ‘obscene.’)
With regard to Michigan the report found that:
* Independent groups are evolving into long-term surrogates for incumbents and challengers and are continuing to exist beyond the specific election around which they formed.
* Special interest groups are buying the majority of the television advertising in the Michigan Supreme Court elections (87% in 2006). There are no disclosure requirements for groups that run “issue” advertisements–including those that mention specific candidates by name.
* 86% of the cases heard by the Michigan Supreme Court in the 1990s involved a contributor to at least one of the justices.
The report recommends that Michigan adopt public financing of Supreme Court elections as a means of mitigating the influence of special interest groups, in addition to urging the state to adopt regulations that require more disclosure for groups running “issue” advertisements.