Exclusive: Business groups poised to turn judges into ‘politicians in robes’

November 2, 2010: Campaign donations to members of Congress from secret donors and foreign investors are grabbing headlines this election season.

But in a new twist in judicial elections this year, business groups are targeting judges over single-issue rulings – from overturning medical malpractice limits to upholding gay marriage – in retention races that were originally designed to limit the influence of special interest money.

If this exploitation of retention elections is successful, it could lead to a whole new tsunami of special interest spending in judicial races across the nation, according to a nonpartisan partnership that works to protect courts from special-interest influence.

Ground zero for this offensive is the retention campaign of Illinois State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Kilbride.

In February 2010, Justice Kilbride ruled as part of a 4-2 majority to overturn limits on medical malpractice awards. Though it was the third time the court had taken such a position, Kilbride’s term was winding down and business groups saw a vulnerable opening, Charles Hall of Justice at Stake explained during a two-part interview with Raw Story last week.

Justice at Stake describes itself as "a nonpartisan campaign with more than 50 national partners, working to keep state and federal courts fair and impartial." It's funded by, among other sources, the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Open Society Institute.

The combined fundraising in the Illinois campaign of more than $3.1 million, received mostly from national business groups seeking Kilbride’s ouster on the one side and plaintiffs’ lawyers on the other, has exceeded spending on all retention elections in the United States over the entire previous decade.

In retention elections, judges seeking another term on the bench have no opponent but instead face a yes-or-no vote on the statewide ballot. Historically, such elections usually receive little funding and the overwhelming majority of judges are reinstated unless they've had conspicuously egregious records.

In Illinois, no sitting state Supreme Court justice has ever lost a retention election.

“I’ve simply never seen anything like this,” said Hall, who’s also the editor of a recent groundbreaking report that revealed that judicial campaign spending had ballooned over the previous decade, jumping from $83.3 million to $206.9 million.

“What we’re seeing now is a much more strategic targeting of judges who rule ‘the wrong way,’” he explained. “And clearly that undermines the whole notion that judges are supposed to be thinking about the law before the politics.”

Hall added, “What we don’t want is judges consulting with pollsters before they write a ruling in a case.”



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