The High Stakes of State Supreme Court Elections: How Ideology and Special Interest Money Threaten Judicial Independence

The most expensive judicial race in United States history, the Wisconsin Supreme Court election, has attracted a whopping $27 million in campaign and outside group spending. This race and other state supreme court elections across the country deserve special attention from people who value justice, fairness, and impartiality. Two major trends are altering the landscape of these elections, with potentially grave consequences for the future of the American judiciary: a significant rise in the influence of ideology and special interest money.

State supreme court elections have taken on greater public prominence because of their potential to overturn controversial state laws. After the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, outside group spending in state supreme court elections skyrocketed, with the 2015-16 cycle seeing a sharp increase. This influx of money combined with the ever-intensifying partisan divide in our country has led to special interest groups dominating the airwaves with political ads, often packing them full of half-truths and misinformation, to sway voters’ opinions.

These groups target elections in pursuit of policy objectives tied to a particular ideology, exerting influence beyond what they could or should achieve through the legislative process. Their focus is primarily on issues such as abortion, gun rights, campaign finance reform, LGBTQ rights, and redistricting, among others. The more ideologically divided the electorate, the more likely special interest groups will try to tip the scales in their favor by bankrolling candidates who align with their views.

The deleterious effects of this trend are twofold. First, candidates for state supreme court elections are devoting more time and energy to fundraising and building relationships with donors instead of honing their legal skills and seeking the best qualifications for the bench. Second, these elections have become less about judicial qualifications and more about candidates’ ideological leanings and their positions on the hot-button issues likely to come before the court.

A prime example of this shift in focus is the fact that two states have even changed their supreme court elections from nonpartisan to partisan contests. When judges are chosen based on their ability to toe the party line rather than their legal acumen or commitment to the rule of law, the judiciary loses its independence from the political fray, which is essential for it to function as the final arbiter of the law and protector of minority rights.

The role of ideology and special interest money in state supreme court elections should not be taken lightly. The need for campaign funds to win these ever more contentious and expensive races has led to a troubling culture of “justice for sale” in some states. Sitting judges and candidates may feel beholden to the big-spending groups that helped put them on the bench, leading to potential conflicts of interest and eroding public trust in the judiciary.

Moreover, the ideological battles waged in these elections often result in the appointment of ideologically extreme judges, skewing the judicial process and impeding justice. The influence of ideology and special interest money in state supreme court elections is not only undermining the foundational principle of judicial independence but also chipping away at the very premise of a free and fair legal system.

The American way of life is rooted in the rule of law and the concept of justice blind to political ideology or special interest money. As these elections grow even more vitriolic and expensive, it is incumbent upon citizens, legislators, and legal professionals to come together to address the threat to our judiciary posed by the increased influence of ideology and money. Otherwise, the impartial administration of justice – a pillar of our democracy – may well be jeopardized.