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Supreme costs: 5 Midwestern states have among most expensive
judicial elections in nation

by Tim Anderson ~ November 2011 ~ Stateline Midwest
The trend toward big spending on state supreme court races took at least two new turns during the 2009-10 election cycle, according to a report issued in October by three judicial watch groups.
The first was the increased influence of “outside money” on judicial campaigns: Special interest groups and political parties accounted for 30 percent of the money spent on supreme court races, compared to 18 percent only four years earlier.
The second was the rise in spending on retention elections, which previously had been “largely immune to big-money politics,” authors of the report say.
And at the center of these changes are several states in the Midwest.
States such as Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin are accustomed to big-money races. They have long held competitive elections for the supreme court, in terms of both the selection and retention of judges.
During the 2009-10 cycle, Michigan had the nation’s most expensive judicial election: The $9.2 million spent came close to doubling that of the second-ranked state, Pennsylvania ($5.4 million). Unlike most other states with high-cost elections, most of the money spent in the Michigan elections did not come from the candidates, but rather from special interest groups and the two major political parties.
Perhaps as a result, Michigan’s judicial campaign also had more TV spending and more negative TV ads than any other state.
Spending in Ohio was third-highest in the nation, with 65 percent of the $4.4 million coming from Supreme Court candidates and the remainder from outside groups. In Wisconsin, candidates raised 84 percent of the $1.9 million spent on the judicial election, which was the eighth-costliest in the nation.
One state not used to high-cost, high-profile judicial elections is Iowa.
It is one of five states in the Midwest (along with Indiana, Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota) that uses a merit selection process to appoint justices. Then, once every six to eight years (depending on the state), justices face a retention election.
Iowa had never ousted a justice in a retention election since the state moved to the process in 1962. And between 2000 and 2009, the report found, “not a single penny of spending was reported in state high-court elections.”
But that all changed in 2010, due to the controversy surrounding a decision by the Iowa Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriage. Iowa’s retention elections attracted $1.4 million in spending from outside groups, and all three justices up for retention in 2010 were removed from office.
Illinois uses a hybrid model for selecting and retaining members of its highest court: Open seats to the state Supreme Court are filled through a partisan election process; once on the court, justices face retention elections once every 10 years.
In 2010, the retention election of Illinois Supreme Court Justice Thomas L. Kilbride attracted an extraordinary amount of money.
He raised nearly $2.8 million while also “benefiting from contributions by major plaintiffs’ law firms that were routed through the Illinois Democratic Party,” authors of the report say.
The money was raised to fight off an aggressive campaign to oust Kilbride, who had voted to strike down state legislation that established new caps on damages that could be awarded in medical malpractice cases.
“Kilbride raised more money in one election than the $2.2 million raised by candidates in all retention elections, nationally, from 2000-2009,” the report found.
The national study was done by the National Justice at Stake Campaign, the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.