Spending yields mixed results in fight for state high courts

High-dollar campaigns reflect importance placed on state supreme courts

By Gene Johnson
Associated Press

SEATTLE (AP) - Millions of dollars in campaign spending produced mixed results for the conservative and liberal groups seeking to sway state supreme courts around the country.

In some of the toughest races this year, for example, justices in Washington and Kansas retained their seats, although liberals succeeded in giving a Democratic tilt to the North Carolina court.

Outside groups spent a record $16.4 million on TV spots this election cycle, topping the $13.5 million spent during the 2011-12 races, according to data from the Brennan Center for Justice. Total TV spending, including ads by the candidates themselves, neared $33 million, just shy of the amount spent four years ago.

The high-dollar campaigns reflect the importance conservative and liberal groups have placed on state supreme courts, which often affirm or overturn policies set by state legislatures.

Among the heaviest spenders this year was the business-backed Republican State Leadership Committee, which dedicated $4 million to try to elect conservative jurists in several states. That included successful efforts in Arkansas, Wisconsin and West Virginia earlier this year, and in Ohio on Tuesday. Its efforts were unsuccessful in Louisiana, Montana and North Carolina.

Matt Walter, president of the leadership committee, said he expects heavy spending on both sides to continue, given the outcome of Tuesday's election. It put the presidency and Congress in Republican hands and is likely to lead to a conservative U.S. Supreme Court for years to come.

He said Democrats are expected to redouble their efforts in state judicial elections, with support from trial lawyers and unions.

Driving much of the spending this year was concern about rulings related to charter schools, taxes and criminal justice.

In Washington, Justice Charlie Wiggins was one of three jurists up for election and faced the greatest opposition, with about $1 million spent against him in the closing days of the campaign.

More than half the money came from Microsoft founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen and the company's former chief executive, Steve Ballmer. They support charter schools in a state where Wiggins joined a court majority striking down public funding for them.

"The billionaires who put the money into this race had a declared objective of changing the direction of the court," Wiggins said Wednesday. "I would hope they would reassess their position and take a closer look at what we do and how we make our decisions."

In Kansas, conservatives were upset in part over the state court's rulings overturning death sentences in high-profile cases. They targeted four justices for removal in retention elections just as the court considers cases related to abortion and education funding.

An effort led by past governors of both parties helped keep them all on the bench.

In North Carolina, where the high court is officially nonpartisan, liberal groups managed to tip the balance of power in favor of Democrats, the first time in nearly two decades that has happened.

Democratic Wake County Superior Court Judge Mike Morgan defeated Republican incumbent Bob Edmunds, helped by an unusual endorsement from President Barack Obama and nearly $1 million in outside spending by a liberal political action committee. Edmunds was criticized for upholding GOP redistricting efforts that were later struck down in federal court as racial gerrymandering.

Chris Bonneau, an expert on judicial elections at the University of Pittsburgh, said Tuesday's results confirmed that it's difficult to unseat judges.

"That should give people some degree of confidence," he said. "You can't just go and buy a member of the court."

Alicia Bannon, senior counsel at the Brennan Center, is less sure. She said the money flowing into judicial races can put pressure on judges when they're hearing high-stakes cases.

Published: Fri, Nov 11, 2016