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September 8, 2010
1:22 PM

CONTACT: Justice at Stake

Bert Brandenburg,
Phone: 202-588-9436

Solid Bipartisan Majorities Believe Judges Influenced by Campaign Contributions

Independent Survey Caps Decade of Record-Shattering Judicial Elections

WASHINGTON - September 8 - Large bipartisan majorities of Americans believe elected judges give favored treatment to their campaign bankrollers, and favor reforms to reduce the perception that justice is for sale, according to a national poll released today.

The Justice at Stake Campaign commissioned Harris Interactive to conduct a telephone survey, the results of which shows an openness to judicial campaign reform that is almost identical among Democrats and Republicans.   Justice at Stake also noted that surveys of corporate leaders, including those by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce suggest a similar openness to judicial election reforms in the business community.

"The American mainstream wants courts to be off-limits to special-interest money and partisan politics," said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake, a nonpartisan campaign with more than 50 partner groups. "The new polling shows that the desire for impartial courts is broad and bipartisan."

According to a new study co-authored by Justice at Stake, fundraising by state Supreme Court candidates soared to $206.9 million in 2000-2009, more than doubling the $83.3 million raised in the 1990s.  Business groups, plaintiffs' lawyers and other special interests have spent millions to put preferred candidates on many state Supreme Courts.

In November, more than two dozen states will hold elections for Supreme Court justices, including multiple high court contests on the ballot in Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, Texas, Washington, and Wyoming.

According to the telephone survey conducted between June 9 and 13, 2010 among a national cross-section 1,004 U.S. adults aged 18 or over, Americans of both major political parties are deeply uneasy about potential conflicts of interest caused by this flood of campaign cash:

  • 71 percent of Democrats, and 70 percent of Republicans, believe campaign expenditures have a significant impact on courtroom decisions. All told, 71 percent of voters share this assessment; only 23 percent believe campaign expenditures have little or no influence on elected judges.   
  • 82 percent of Republicans, and 79 percent of Democrats, say a judge should not hear cases involving a campaign supporter who spent $10,000 toward his or her election. Instead, adults said, a neutral judge should hear such cases. This view was held by 81 percent of all adults; only 8 percent of the American public believes an elected judge should stay on cases involving major campaign backers.
  • 88 percent of Republicans, and 86 percent of Democrats, say that "all campaign expenditures to elect judges" should be publicly disclosed, so that voters can know who is seeking to elect each candidate. Among all adults, 87 percent favor full disclosure of campaign expenditures in court elections, and only 8 percent are opposed.
  • 69 percent of all adults, including 73 percent of Republicans and 65 percent of Democrats, said they support a menu of reforms to reduce special interest influence in the courtroom. Potential reforms raised in the survey included public financing of state court elections and systems in which judges are appointed to the bench, but require periodic voter consent to stay on the bench.

Brandenburg noted that the survey results are reflected among top legal authorities from both parties, and by surveys of business leaders in recent years.

Prominent Republicans sounding the alarm about the threat of partisanship and interest group money on the courts include retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, former U.S. Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson, and Texas Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson.  Prominent Democrats calling for reforms include Michigan Chief Justice Marilyn Kelly and Wisconsin Justice Ann Walsh Bradley.

"There have been efforts to transform concerns about court elections into a Republican-Democrat issue, or a liberal-conservative issue," Brandenburg said. "Americans disagree.  Public opinion surveys and statements from prominent leaders in both parties show that Americans don't like to see judges dialing for dollars from parties who might appear before them."   Moreover, Brandenburg said, surveys of executives show similar results in the business community.   A 2007 Zogby International poll, commissioned by the Committee for Economic Development, showed that 79 percent of business leaders surveyed believe campaign spending influences courtroom decisions.   Pepsi-Co, Wal-Mart, Intel and Lockheed Martin, signed a brief two years ago urging the Supreme Court to require recusal where a judge receives "outsized campaign contributions" from a party appearing before him or her.

Four of the nation's five highest-ranking states for best "lawsuit climate," according to the annual U.S. Chamber of Commerce survey of corporate counsel and senior executives, also are states that appoint judges using nonpartisan merit selection commissions.  Four of the five lowest-ranking states elect judges through competitive elections, in which opposing special-interest groups spend heavily to sway the outcome. 

Harris Interactive conducted this most recent poll, as Justice at Stake and two other reform groups were finalizing "The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2000-2009: Decade of Change." The report, co-authored by the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Institute on Money in State Politics, is available here.

The new survey results confirm other surveys taken throughout the past decade, showing that Americans of all political persuasions are deeply uneasy with the idea that special interests can get the upper hand in court cases by spending heavily to elect the judges hearing the case.

In various surveys cited by the "New Politics" report, 70 to 75 percent of voters said they believe campaign cash affects courtroom decisions-and even 46 percent of state judges surveyed in 2001 agreed. Other polls, available at Justice at Stake, show strong support for public financing of court elections, and tougher rules to disqualify judges from cases involving campaign supporters.

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About the Survey The Harris Interactive survey was conducted by telephone within the United States between June 9 and 13, 2010, among a nationwide cross section of 1,004 U.S. adults ages 18 and older. Full survey results can be found here, and a full methodology is available.


We’re a nationwide, nonpartisan partnership of more than forty-five judicial, legal and citizen organizations. We’ve come together because across America, your right to fair and impartial justice is at stake. Judges and citizens are deeply concerned about the growing impact of money and politics on fair and impartial courts. Our mission is to educate the public and work for reforms to keep politics and special interests out of the courtroom—so judges can do their job protecting the Constitution, individual rights and the rule of law.


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