By Adam Skaggs and Bert Brandenburg
The opinions expressed are their own.
Attacks on judges who “legislate from the bench” are commonplace in conservative politics, but the current crop of Republican presidential contenders has taken attacking the judiciary to a new level. New frontrunner Newt Gingrich is the most outspoken — promising that if elected, he would impeach judges, abolish judgeships, and ignore court rulings he doesn’t like.
Gingrich’s plans violate basic constitutional norms and would set off a constitutional crisis. But, ultimately, they ring hollow: however effective in motivating the Republican base, the attacks on the courts are not credible policy proposals.
Outside the realm of presidential politics, however, there is a looming — and very serious — threat to our justice system. Despite all the attention focused on money in politics, few Americans know how much campaign cash is pouring into courts of law, and how it threatens to undermine equal justice for all.
Judges are elected in 39 states, and in recent years, judicial election spending has skyrocketed. In the last decade, spending on state high court elections more than doubled — candidates raised $206.9 million between 2000 and 2009, compared to only $83.3 million in the 1990s.
Now a new report shows that the percentage of outside spending by special interests and political parties nearly doubled in the most recent judicial election cycle, compared with the previous mid-term election. The report — from the Justice at Stake Campaign, Brennan Center for Justice, and National Institute on Money in State Politics — shows that just 10 “Super Spender” groups accounted for nearly $15 million in total spending in 2009-2010 — almost 40 percent of every dollar spent on high court elections.