Are the Millions Spent on Negative State Court Election Ads Causing Judges to Shy Away from Finding For the Defendant?
Date:  11-17-2015

A new report shows 82% of attack ads on judges and candidates focused on criminal justice issues, mostly using scare tactics
An article in The Atlantic reveals that Super PACs and other groups that represent tobacco companies, energy companies, attorneys for plaintiffs, prosecutors and police are spending millions of dollars on attack ads declaring certain judges or candidates for judgeships are soft on crime. Most of the ads are incendiary and misleading and play on the fears of citizens a la the Willie Horton ad during the 1988 George Bush/Michael Dukakis campaign. But as the Atlantic article discovered the agendas of the biggest funders have nothing to do with criminal justice, but are just using that topic to help defeat opponents and get the ear of judges who accept hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars in donations.

The Big Money Propping Up Harsh Sentences

Special-interest groups are funneling millions of dollars into state-court elections, taking a toll on justice and public confidence in judges.

In November, Pennsylvania set a national record for spending on supreme court elections. Negative ads that painted candidates as issuing “lenient sentences” and “fail[ing] to protect a child” circulated the airwaves and consequently set the tone for the campaign. And while the election is over, the ads may have a long-lasting effect on how judges handle criminal cases moving forward.

Across the country, a common thread in supreme court campaigns is whether judges are sufficiently “tough on crime.” Recent elections have accused judges or candidates of having “expressed sympathy for rapists,” having “sided with the predators,” having gone “liberal on crime” and having shielded a priest accused of molestation. Behind these ads are special interest groups—many with clear financial interests in cases that come before state courts—who appear to be coalescing around a strategy to exploit public-safety issues.

“Tough on crime” was the most common political theme aired in recent state supreme court elections, with a record 56 percent of TV ad spots either criticizing or touting the records of judges and candidates, according to a report we recently coauthored, Bankrolling the Bench: The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2013-14. More often than not, however, the money behind such ads has little to do with criminal justice. Read more