Elections

Judicial Races On Track to Break Spending Records

The 2015-2016 state supreme court election cycle has attracted big money from outside groups.
by | November 3, 2016
This year, five of Kansas’ seven supreme court justices are up for retention. (AP/Charlie Riedel)

It looks like 2016 will be another record-breaking year for spending on judicial races.

Already $14 million has been spent by outside groups on TV ads during the 2015-2016 state supreme court election cycle, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. That tops the $13.5 million spent by outside groups in the 2011-2012 cycle.

Meanwhile, the combined spending by outside groups and candidates has nearly reached $30 million this year. That’s short of the 2011-2012 record of $35.5 million, but there’s still a strong likelihood that late campaign finance disclosures will push this year’s expenditures past the record.

“These developments underscore the growing importance of state courts in national politics and the expanding influence of secret money,” the group said in its analysis.

Judicial races are relatively low-profile affairs, and even the record-setting dollar amounts we’re seeing today amount to a drop in the bucket compared to what's spent on presidential and congressional races. But rulings by state supreme courts can have vast influence on policy matters in states, from education to criminal justice to business regulation.

Here’s a rundown of 10 states with the races attracting the most attention, listed in alphabetical order.

Kansas

Kansas holds retention elections six years after a judge is appointed. Two years ago, a pair of Kansas judges almost became the first to be denied retention since the law went into effect in 1958. This year, five of Kansas’ seven supreme court justices are up for retention.

This has set off a prolonged battle between Democrats and moderate Republicans on one side and conservative Republicans and Gov. Sam Brownback on the other.

“The justices facing retention are the focal point," according to Ballotpedia, a politics site that tracks races and ballot initiatives, "of both a statewide school funding battle and dissatisfaction with the court's decisions in several recent death penalty cases.” The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the state court's decisions in these cases.

The most controversial ruling was four justices decision to vacate the death sentence of brothers Jonathan and Reginald Carr in 2014 after their conviction in a grisly multiple homicide. Chief Justice Lawton Nuss and associate justices Carol Beier, Dan Biles and Marla Luckert voted to vacate the sentence; Caleb Stegall, the fifth justice up for retention this year, was appointed to the court by Brownback after that decision was made.

Polling in the races is nonexistent, but the pro-retention side can take comfort in successes by anti-Brownback forces in the August primaries.

Kentucky

In Kentucky, one seat on the Supreme Court is being contested this year, and it’s been a relatively quiet race.

The race to succeed retiring Justice Mary Noble is proceeding largely along nonpartisan lines, but the two candidates -- Glenn Acree and Larry VanMeter -- are a registered Democrat and a registered Republican, respectively. Both have served on the Kentucky Court of Appeals, but Van Meter has a bigger warchest.

Louisiana

In Louisiana, Justice Jeannette Knoll is retiring. The candidates to succeed her are Jimmy Genovese and Marilyn Castle -- both experienced judges and Republicans.

Combined, the candidates have raised upwards of $1.5 million, and outside groups have spent nearly another $1 million on TV ads. While the sources of funding are not exactly transparent, The Acadiana Advocate newspaper concluded that “though each campaign has a varied base of support, Castle seems the favorite of the business community” while “Genovese has strong backing from plaintiff attorneys and personal injury firms.”

Michigan

Michigan has one of the more eccentric systems for electing supreme court justices. Candidates are nominated by the political parties but then run as “nonpartisans" on the general election ballot.

Currently, the court has five Republican-nominated justices and two Democratic-nominated justices. Two seats are up this year, both held by Republicans seeking re-election.

Incumbent David Viviano is being challenged by Wayne County Circuit Judge Frank Szymanski, while incumbent Joan Larsen is being challenged by Wayne County Circuit Judge Deborah Thomas.

The incumbents are favored, but the more notable aspect of the 2016 campaign is that the judicial races are taking a lower profile than usual, with significantly reduced spending, in part because the previous Democratic Party chairman, Mark Brewer, placed a higher priority on judicial contests.

Mississippi

In Mississippi, incumbent Supreme Court Justice Jim Kitchens faces a challenge from appeals court Judge Kenny Griffis, one of only two moderate justices to have survived an onslaught of pro-business spending in recent election cycles.

Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, both Republicans, are backing Griffis. While the office is officially nonpartisan, Griffis' slogan is "Stop Liberal Politics," and ads by outside groups supporting him charge that Kitchens sides with child abusers and murderers over crime victims. The candidates themselves are approaching $1 million in spending.

Montana

Montana’s contested supreme court race may be the state’s second-most important this year after the gubernatorial contest.

The open-seat contest on the closely divided, seven-member court pits District Judge Dirk Sandefur, who has the support of Democrats, against former law professor Kristen Juras, supported by Republicans, though the election is technically nonpartisan.

The race is on track to become the state’s most expensive ever, with spending between $1.5 million and $2 million.

Sandefur is being attacked as soft on crime and for being in the pocket of trial lawyers. Critics of Juras, meanwhile, are focusing on her socially conservative views.

Currently, the court has two reliably conservative justices, two moderates and three reliably liberal justices, one of whom is retiring, so the winner has the potential to tilt the court’s ideological balance.

New Mexico

In New Mexico, incumbent Judith Nakamura, who was appointed by GOP Gov. Susana Martinez from a shortlist assembled by the bipartisan Judicial Nomination Commission, is facing a challenge from Democrat Michael Vigil, the chief judge of the New Mexico Court of Appeals.

Vigil’s candidacy is notable for being the first in the state to reserve space for TV ads for the general election.

North Carolina

On the crowded list of races in North Carolina this year, the supreme court race -- between incumbent Justice Bob Edmunds, a registered Republican, and his challenger, Superior Court Judge Michael Morgan, a registered Democrat -- is far down the list. But it’s attracting attention anyway.

President Obama went out of his way to endorse Morgan. Officially, the justices are nonpartisan and are not listed on the ballot with a party affiliation. But the court currently has a one-seat advantage for conservatives, and if Morgan wins, he would swing it in the Democrats' direction.

In addition to the usual differences over criminal and commercial law, the court could play a key role in the once-a-decade redistricting that follows the 2020 Census.

Neither candidate is well known, and the race is expected to be close.

Ohio

Six of the seven seats on the Ohio Supreme Court are held by Republicans.

One seat is up for re-election: Republican Maureen O’Connor is seeking another six-year term as chief justice and is unopposed.

Two other sears are open this year due to retirements by Republicans Paul Pfeifer and Judith Ann Lanzinger. Republican Pat DeWine, an appellate judge and the son of state Attorney General Mike DeWine, faces Democrat Cynthia Westcott Rice, an appellate judge. Meanwhile, Republican Pat Fischer faces Democrat John P. O’Donnell, a common pleas court judge.

Washington state

Finally, in Washington state, several court decisions -- including rulings that backed a $15 minimum wage and that struck down public funding for charter schools -- have put three incumbent justices in the hot seat.

The three -- Mary Yu, Charles Wiggins and Chief Justice Barbara Madsen -- are facing active opposition. Most notable is a late ad campaign seeking to unseat Wiggins by backing Federal Way Municipal Court Judge Dave Larson. The effort is being supported by such local business figures as Bill Gates, Paul Allen and Steve Ballmer of Microsoft, who are worried about the court’s anti-business drift and its stance against charter schools. Michael Davis of Enterprise Washington, a pro-business group directing the effort, told the Seattle Times that Larson would bring moderation to the court.

“The court right now is just simply too divisive, too extreme and too polarizing in its decisions,” he said. A separate outside group is airing hard-hitting ads that portray Wiggins as soft on crime.

*CORRECTION: We mistakenly cited Charles Wiggins as the chief justice in Washington state. It's actually Barbara Madsen.

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