FAQ About State Judicial Elections

Why should we be concerned about the independence of judges?
With money and politics already dominating the executive and legislative branches, our court system is one of the only places left in America where everyday people can successfully confront powerful industries and institutions and seek justice.  Because of this important function, the independence of judges has been a national concern since our nation’s beginning.  When the colonists separated from England, they listed King George's attempts to restrict the independence of judges as one of a long list of offenses enumerated in the Declaration of Independence.  When groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce fund judicial attack ads and orchestrate campaigns against judges because of decisions they have rendered, the very foundation of our judicial system is threatened.  Judges who must look over their shoulder to calculate how their decisions might play with business interests cannot fulfill the basic role of what it is we expect of a judge. 
Why should we be concerned about judicial election campaigns?
The vast majority of state judges in the country must compete in elections at some point in their career, either in retention votes or against opposing judicial candidates.  Many of these elections have become as nasty, partisan and expensive as any other electoral campaign, and the situation has only gotten worse since the U.S. Supreme Court decision,Citizens United, which unleashed corporate spending in election campaigns.  Both U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg  and former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor have publicly sounded the alarm about this.  Justice O’Connor noted that the Citizens United decision “will energize an ‘arms race’ in judicial elections and be a ‘problem for maintaining an independent judiciary.’” 
Is spending in judicial election campaigns a priority of the “tort reform” movement?
Yes.  In the1990s, a principal focus of the “tort reform” movement became ensuring the election of pro-industry state judges and the defeat of judges who typically support verdicts won by everyday Americans (“plaintiffs”) or have voted to strike down state tort law restrictions as unconstitutional.  For example, in 1994, American Tort Reform Association officials told the group’s annual legislative conference in Washington, D.C. that since substantial “tort reforms” were passed in Texas, Mississippi, North Dakota, Arizona and Michigan in 1993, their next step would be to work on judicial elections. (“Tort Reformers Aim at Judicial Elections to Consolidate Gains,” Liability Week, January 24, 1994.)  By 1998, this effort had become a major focus for ATRA.  (“Tort Reformers Focus on State Supreme Court Elections,” Liability Week, October 26, 1998.)
Influencing judicial elections also continues to be a central focus for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the group they created in 1988, the Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform, to pursue the Chamber’s agenda of protecting for corporations from liability.  In 2003, Forbes magazine identified a “secret war on judges now being waged by the chamber.”
This war continues by the business community and “tort reform” groups. Recently, for example:

"Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride on Tuesday faced down a well-funded and concerted effort by business interests that were trying to make him the first high court justice in the state to be unseated in a retention vote.”
"Kilbride was portrayed as soft on crime in visceral radio ads that featured actors portraying rapists and murderers.  The campaign prompted a backlash from other judges, lawyers and legal scholars who pointed out Kilbride's opinions were based on legal procedures and points of law. 
"While the campaign focused on what Kilbride calls “gross distortions” of his record, the acknowledged aim of the Illinois Civil Justice League was to dump a judge they see as unwilling to stop large jury awards given to plaintiffs in malpractice and other negligence lawsuits. 
"League President Ed Murnane conceded tonight that the organization would not stop Kilbride. But he said they will continue to try and unseat judges they view as opposed to jury award limits."

Is spending in judicial election campaigns the only way that the “tort reform” groups wage war on judges?
No.  For example, in 2010, Louisiana's Chief Justice Catherine Kimball blasted a “survey” by the  Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform that “ranks” court systems and business climates based on the views of out-of-state corporate lawyers.  The Times-Picayune reported:
"'I strenuously object to the ILR's taking the opinions of just a few attorneys who may never have set foot in Louisiana and making pronouncements about our courts,' [Chief Justice] Kimball said in a statement released this week. 'Whether we're rated highly or poorly, this survey is not a valid measure of the efficiency or fairness of Louisiana's courts.' …
"Kimball noted a study by Cornell University law and statistics professor Theodore Eisenberg, who said the Chamber survey "lacks elementary social scientific objectivity." The respondents to the survey are not required to have any experience in the states they rank but only need to say they are "somewhat familiar" with a state, Eisenberg said.
"'A person can be 'somewhat familiar' with a state's courts because of a single high-profile case or because of a novel or movie based in that state,' said Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Greg Guidry, who is on the ad hoc committee. 'Those might be honest perceptions, but they have no validity.'"

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