Judicial Campaigns and Elections
As in several other states, the cost of judicial campaigns has skyrocketed in Alabama in recent years. Since 1993, candidates for seats on Alabama's supreme court have raised more than $58 million. The 2006 elections saw the most expensive judicial race in state history and the second most expensive in U.S. history, with candidates for the chief justiceship raising $8.2 million.
Other than a $500 limit on contributions from corporations, Alabama imposes no limits on campaign contributions to judicial candidates.
Judicial election campaigns are substantially funded by the candidates themselves. Small contributions also come from law firms and individual attorneys. Unlike other states that elect their judges, the cost of judicial elections in Arkansas has not skyrocketed in recent years.
California's contribution limits apply only to special elections and special runoff elections.
According to a 2010 law, judges must disclose contributions from parties and attorneys in cases before them. Judges who received a contribution of more than $1,500 from a party or attorney for an election within the last six years or for an upcoming election are disqualified from participating in the case. The non-contributing party may waive disqualification.
District of Columbia
Following the 2002 judicial primary elections, in which an independent group spent nearly $174,000 on a last-minute advertising blitz against Chief Justice Linda Copple-Trout, the Idaho Legislative Council created a task force to look into the role that money plays in the election of Idaho judges. The legislative task force on judicial campaign financing recommended the formation of an interim committee to study the growing threat to judicial independence and the immediate passage of stronger disclosure rules for groups making independent expenditures. In 2003, the legislature passed a law requiring third parties involved in political campaigns to report any last-minute expenditures exceeding $1,000 within 48 hours.
A law was passed in 2009 imposing the first-ever limits on campaign contributions to judicial candidates. Limits were set at $125,000 for candidates in the first judicial district and at $75,000 for candidates in all other districts. The limits apply to contributions from individuals, businesses, and special interest groups in both the primary and general elections, but only apply to contributions from political leaders and leadership committees in the primaries.
Between 1990 and 2000, combined spending by supreme court candidates in Illinois increased 37%, and primary election spending grew by 132%. In 2000, candidates for three seats spent more than $8 million, and in 2002, candidates for a single seat spent over $2.2 million. In 2004, candidates for a single seat broke a national record for fundraising in a contested judicial race, raising $9.3 million between them and exceeding total contributions in 18 of 34 U.S. Senate races that year.
In 2008, the Midwest Democracy Network and the Justice at Stake Campaign released a report on recent judicial elections in five Midwestern states, including Illinois. Click here to read “The New Politics of Judicial Elections in the Great Lakes States, 2000-2008.”
Individual and PAC contributions to probate court candidates are limited to $250 per candidate per election.
Individual and political PAC contributions to supreme court and court of appeals candidates and to circuit court candidates in larger circuits are limited to $3,400 per candidate per election cycle. Individual and political PAC contributions to circuit court candidates in smaller circuits are limited to $1,000 or $500 per candidate per election cycle, based on the size of the circuit. Candidates' campaign committees are prohibited from soliciting contributions greater than $100 from lawyers.
In the 2000 elections, a total of $13 million to $15 million was spent by supreme court candidates, the Republican and Democratic Parties, and outside interest groups. The 2000 contests were the most expensive and contentious in the state's history.
In 2008, the Midwest Democracy Network and the Justice at Stake Campaign released a report on recent judicial elections in five Midwestern states, including Michigan. Click here to read “The New Politics of Judicial Elections in the Great Lakes States, 2000-2008.”
Unlike candidates for other state offices, there are no statutory limits on campaign contributions to judicial candidates. However, according to a 2009 amendment to the code of judicial conduct, judicial candidates' campaign committees may not solicit or accept individual or organizational contributions that exceed, in the aggregate, $2000 in an election year and $500 in a non-election year.
In 2008, the Midwest Democracy Network and the Justice at Stake Campaign released a report on recent judicial elections in five Midwestern states, including Minnesota. Click here to read “The New Politics of Judicial Elections in the Great Lakes States, 2000-2008.”
The campaign finance regulations enacted in 1999 have had little impact on money in judicial races. In 2000, ten candidates for four seats raised $3.4 million. The 2002 election saw the most expensive campaign in the state’s history for a single seat on the Mississippi Supreme Court, with three candidates raising $1.8 million. In addition, the 1999 legislation could not curb independent spending by special interest groups. In 2000, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent nearly $1 million on television advertising favoring four Mississippi Supreme Court candidates. Expenditures by trial lawyer groups brought the total in “soft” money in the 2000 judicial elections to an estimated $1.5 million. In the 2002 elections, the Chamber itself did not sponsor any advertisements, but some commentators speculate that it financed the more than $500,000 worth of television ads presented by a group called the Law Enforcement Alliance of America. Nine other groups also ran ads in 2002, most of them devoted to tort reform advocacy or opposition.
In 2002, the supreme court amended the code of judicial conduct to allow a party to file a motion to recuse a judge when an opposing party or attorney is a “major donor” to the judge’s election campaign. A “major donor” is defined as someone who, in the judge’s most recent election campaign, contributed more than $2,000 in the case of appellate judges or more than $1,000 for other judges.
Under Missouri law, there are no limits on contributions to judicial candidates.
Contributions to judicial candidates are capped at $5,000 per office per election.
A 2010 study by the American Judicature Society indicated that campaign contributors appear often before the Nevada Supreme Court, and that it is fairly common for contributors to have donated to the campaigns of a majority of the justices. According to an analysis of the 112 civil cases decided by the court in 2008 and 2009:
In 67 of the 112 cases (60 percent), at least one of the litigants, attorneys, or firms involved had contributed to the most recent election campaign of at least one justice.
- In 36 cases (32 percent), a contribution had been made by more than one of the parties in the case.
- In 47 of the 112 cases (42 percent), at least one litigant, attorney, or firm involved in the case had contributed to a majority of the justices deciding the case.
- In 10 of the 112 cases, two participants had made contributions to a majority of the justices deciding their cases; in 4 cases, three participants had done so.
Limits on contributions to judicial candidates are determined according to a formula, which is based on the number of enrolled party members in the candidate's district for the primary election and the number of registered voters in the candidate's district for the general election. There are different limits for family and non-family contributors. The limit on non-family contributions is determined by the following formula: $0.05 x the number of party members or the number of registered voters in the candidate's district. Non-family contribution limits are at least $1,000, with a maximum of $50,000. The aggregate limit on contributions from a candidate's family is calculated as follows: $0.25 x the number of party members or the number of registered voters. Aggregate family contribution limits are at least $1,250, with a maximum of $100,000. New York also imposes aggregate calendar-year limits on political contributions. Individuals may contribute up to a total of $150,000 in a calendar year, and corporations may contribute up to $5,000.
New York has one of the most restrictive rules in the nation regarding when judges are disqualified from hearing cases involving campaign contributors. According to a court rule adopted in 2011, no case shall be assigned by court administrators to a judge when the lawyers or any of the participants involved donated $2,500 or more in the preceding two years.
The Judicial Campaign Reform Act also gives candidates for the supreme court and the court of appeals the option of public financing if they agree to strict fundraising and spending limits. Funds for the Public Campaign Elections Fund come from two sources: a $50 surcharge on the annual dues that attorneys pay to the state bar and a voluntary $3 state income tax checkoff.
Passage of the act resulted from the efforts of a broad coalition of groups and individuals known as North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections. Key organizational members of the coalition included the North Carolina Center for Voter Education, the League of Women Voters of North Carolina, the North Carolina Project of Democracy South (now Democracy North Carolina), and Common Cause/North Carolina.
Since 2000, candidates for the Ohio Supreme Court have raised $18.7 million. Six of the seven current members of the court raised at least $1 million each in their most recent campaigns. (The only justice who did not was unopposed for reelection.)
As of 2009, limits on campaign contributions from individuals are set at $3,450 for supreme court candidates; $1,150 for court of appeals candidates; and $575 for candidates for the court of common pleas, municipal court, and county court. PAC contribution limits are set at $6,325 for supreme court candidates and $3,450 for candidates for other courts. Limits are the same for both the primary and general elections. However, if a primary is uncontested, the general election limits apply throughout the fundraising period.
A number of organizations track campaign contributions to Ohio Supreme Court justices, including Ohio Citizen Action, the American Friends Service Committee of Northeast Ohio, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
In 2008, the Midwest Democracy Network and the Justice at Stake Campaign released a report on recent judicial elections in five Midwestern states, including Ohio. Click here to read “The New Politics of Judicial Elections in the Great Lakes States, 2000-2008.”
In 2007, four candidates for two open seats on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court spent $7.85 million, shattering previous records for judicial elections in the state. Records were broken again in 2009 when two candidates for a single seat spent nearly $4.7 million--the most expensive supreme court race ever in Pennsylvania.
A 2010 study by the American Judicature Society indicated that campaign contributors appear often before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and that it is fairly common for contributors to have donated to the campaigns of a majority of the justices. According to an analysis of the 82 civil cases decided by the court in 2008 and 2009:
- In 49 of the 82 cases (60 percent), at least one of the litigants, attorneys, or firms involved had contributed to the election campaign of at least one justice.
- In 21 cases (26 percent), a contribution had been made by more than one of the parties in the case.
- In 26 of the 82 cases (32 percent), a single litigant, attorney, or firm in the case had contributed to at least four of the six justices who ran in contested elections.
- In 11 cases a single party had donated to the campaigns of four justices; in 14 cases a single party had made contributions to five justices; and in 3 cases, a single party had given campaign money to all six justices who won their seats.
Individual and PAC contributions to probate court candidates are limited to $1,000 per candidate per election cycle.
Between 1992 and 1997, the seven winning candidates for the Texas Supreme Court raised nearly $9.2 million dollars. Of this $9.2 million, more than 40% was contributed by parties or lawyers with cases before the court or by contributors linked to those parties. The perceived impropriety of judges soliciting and accepting large campaign contributions from attorneys and parties who appear before them has been the subject of numerous newspaper and magazine articles, as well as television broadcasts. In 1987 and again in 1998, 60 Minutes aired segments that examined whether justice was for sale in Texas, and Frontline explored the same question in 1999.
In the early 1980s, plaintiff lawyers were the largest contributors to Texas judicial candidates, but in the late 1980s and 1990s, they were replaced by civil defense attorneys, doctors, insurance companies, and other business interests. In recent years, major contributors to judicial candidates have included the Texas Association of Business and Chambers of Commerce, the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, the Texas Medical Association, Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the insurance industry, energy and natural resources companies, and the Republican and Democratic Parties. Texans for Public Justice, a legal watchdog group founded in 1997, tracks campaign contributions to public officials in Texas, including appellate judges, and has issued a number of reports that examine the relationship between campaign contributions to judges and judicial decisions. Their most recent report, Courtroom Contributions Stain Supreme Court Campaigns, reveals that supreme court candidates receive two thirds of their campaign contributions from lawyers and litigants who appear before them. Other reports include Checks and Imbalances, Payola Justice, and Lowering the Bar.
In 1995, the Judicial Campaign Fairness Act was passed to regulate financing of judicial elections. Under the JCFA:
- Individual contributions to candidates for the supreme court and court of criminal appeals are limited to $5,000. Individual contributions to all other judicial candidates are limited to between $1,000 and $5,000, depending on the population of the judicial district.
- Contributions from law firms and members of law firms are limited to $50 if the aggregate contributions from the firm and its members exceed six times the maximum individual contribution for that judicial office.
- Candidates for the supreme court and court of criminal appeals may accept up to $300,000 in total contributions from PACs. Court of appeals candidates are limited to between $52,500 and $75,000 in total PAC contributions, depending on the population of the judicial district. Total PAC contributions to all other judicial candidates are limited to between $15,000 and $52,500, depending on the population of the judicial district.
- Voluntary expenditure limits are established. Candidates must file a sworn declaration of their intent to either voluntarily comply with or exceed these limits. If a candidate who complies with the expenditure limits is opposed by a candidate who does not comply, the complying candidate is no longer bound by either contribution or expenditure limits. Expenditures by candidates for the supreme court and court of criminal appeals are limited to $2 million. Expenditures by court of appeals candidates are limited to between $350,000 and $500,000, depending on the population of the judicial district. Expenditures by all other judicial candidates are limited to between $100,000 and $350,000, depending on the population of the judicial district.
- Contributions to and expenditures by committees formed to support a judicial candidate, oppose the candidate's opponent, or assist the candidate as an officeholder are considered contributions to and expenditures by the candidate. Contributions to and direct expenditures on behalf of complying candidates from a political party are considered expenditures by the candidate.
- Contribution limits are per candidate, per election. However, the primary election and the general election are considered to be a single election if the candidate is unopposed in the primary or if the candidate does not have an opponent on the ballot in the general election. The various contribution limits for that "single election" are increased by 25 percent, but the amount of the increase may only be used for officeholder expenditures.
For more information about the Judicial Campaign Fairness Act, see Judicial Selection Reform: Examples from Six States.
Campaign committees for probate court candidates may not accept contributions exceeding $150 from a single source.
A 2006 law applied the same contribution limits to supreme court and court of appeals candidates as for statewide candidates for other offices, and it set the same limits for superior court candidates as exist for state legislative candidates. Contributions to appellate court candidates are capped at $1600 per donor for the primary and $1600 for the general election, and contributions to trial court candidates are capped at $800 per election. Prior to this legislation, there were no limits on contributions to judicial candidates, except during the three-week period before the general election.
In 2009, the Impartial Justice bill was signed into law, creating a public financing system for judicial elections. The program provides up to $400,000 of initial public financing for supreme court candidates. In order to qualify for public financing, judicial candidates would have to raise $5,000 to $15,000 in donations ranging from $5 to $100. They would then receive $100,000 for the primary election and $300,000 for the general election. If an opponent or opponents decline public financing and outspend other candidates, those opting for public financing would be eligible for up to $300,000 more for the primary and $900,000 more for the general election.
The law also reduces contribution limits for candidates who opt out of public financing from $10,000 to $1,000.
According to a study of Wisconsin Supreme Court elections from 1989 to 1999 conducted by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, the average amount of funds raised by a supreme court candidate increased threefold during this period, from $194,642 in 1989 to $656,202 in 1999. The candidates themselves accounted for 26.4% of these funds. Every successful candidate received a contribution from an attorney or litigant who later appeared before the court, and 75% of the court's cases during this time involved one or more campaign contributors. Click here for the complete report.
Wisconsin has offered partial public financing for major state offices, including the supreme court, since 1976. The system is funded through a $1 state tax return checkoff, and 8% is earmarked for grants to supreme court candidates in years when there is a supreme court race. Taxpayer participation has declined over the years, and some candidates have turned down public funds in recent elections. In 1999, the Wisconsin Commission on Judicial Elections and Ethics recommended that all appellate court races be fully funded. A number of groups are working to accomplish campaign finance reform, including Wisconsin Citizen Action, Common Cause in Wisconsin, and Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. Public financing legislation passed the senate in 2000 and again in 2008 but stalled in the assembly. According to a 2008 poll conducted by the Justice at Stake Campaign, 65% of Wisconsin voters supported public financing for supreme court candidates, and 77% agreed that the legislature and the governor needed to take action on judicial campaign reform before the next election.
In 2008, the Midwest Democracy Network and the Justice at Stake Campaign released a report on recent judicial elections in five Midwestern states, including Wisconsin. Click here to read “The New Politics of Judicial Elections in the Great Lakes States, 2000-2008.”