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04

By Mary Winter

A report released Monday on campaign contributions in judicial races transported some of us here at NCSL back to balmy Atlanta.

In August, retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor told NCSL’s 2013 Legislative Summit meeting in Georgia she’s on a mission to get money out of judicial elections.

"Money presents the greatest risk to fair courts,” O’Connor told state legislators from around the country. “Money creates the impression, rightly or wrongly, that judges are accountable to money and politics, not the law.”

Today, less than three months after O’Connor’s keynote talk, a new report shows that lower court candidates in ten states raised $55.2 million in contributions in the 2011–2012 elections. The National Institute on Money in State Politics analyzed campaign contributions raised by 1,243 lower court candidates in California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin.

Lawyers, law firms, and lobbyists gave the most — $18.2 million—or about one-third of the total contributions in the ten-state analysis, according the report at www.followthemoney.com, the website of the Montana-based National Institute on Money in State Politics. Candidates were their own second-largest contributors, giving $14.7 million, or 27 percent. The business sector came in a distant third, giving $5.1 million.

The vast majority of contritbutions—97 percent— came from donors in the candidate’s state, and most donors to lower court candidates did not give to higher court candidates, according to the analysis. Of the ten states, Texas saw the most money flow to lower court candidates. Four law firms there gave more than $255,000. The two candidates who financed their campaigns entirely with their own money came from Florida and Illinois.

The National Institute on Money in State Politics, which is nonprofit and nonpartisan, defined lower courts as those below the state’s high and intermediate appellate courts. Depending on the state, they are called superior court, district court, circuit court, court of common pleas or, even, supreme court.

At the National Center for State Courts, analyst Bill Rafferty described judicial selection methods across the country as “a patchwork quilt.” For example, he said, in Kansas, supreme court judges are selected on merit; appeals court judges are appointed by the governor, confirmed by the Senate, and then must run in retention races; and trial court judges are chosen on merit in 17 districts, and in 14 districts, they run in partisan elections.

“We are the only country in the world that still elects judges,” said Edwin Bender, executive director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Would-be judges in Europe, for example, get higher education degrees in the law and are selected by panels.  Bender said in the future, his group plans to examine donors to courts at all levels.

Mary Winter is assistant editor of State Legislatures magazine.

Posted in: Elections
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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.

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