Judicial Elections Turn 'Bitter, Nasty' and Pricey

When Linda Trout was appointed to the Idaho Supreme Court in 1992, she became the state's first female Supreme Court justice and one of the youngest members of the court in state history.

Now, after 15 years on the high court, Trout plans to step down in August — in large part because she does not want to endure what she fears will be an expensive and divisive election.

"Judicial elections have turned into bitter, nasty fights, which I don't think is seemly for the judiciary," said Trout, who was the target of an attack ad campaign when she last ran for office in 2002.

"I'm looking nationally at the trend toward more and more costly and contentious judicial elections," she told ABC News. "I don't want to go through that."

Over the last several years, once-tame judicial elections across the country have become high-stakes political battles, fueled by special interest money and the kind of raucous campaigning once reserved for legislative or presidential races, according to a recently released study from the Justice at Stake Campaign and the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

"The more money that's poured into judicial elections, the more likely it is that courts will become places that react to special interest groups rather than to the concept of impartial justice," Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard told ABC News.

More Politics, Less Objectivity?

Supporters of judicial elections say they ensure that judges are held accountable to voters. Critics warn the rising cost and coarsening tenor of judicial campaigns are trends that undermine the independence of the judiciary — and that have persuaded some candidates, like Trout, to avoid running at all.

Thirty-nine states elect at least some of their judges. State high court candidates in the 11 states that had contested elections last year raised more than $34 million, from groups such as the Democratic and Republican parties, the National Association of Manufacturers and trial lawyers, the report said.

The median amount of money raised by high court candidates last year rose nearly 20 percent, to $244,000, up from $202,000 in 2004, the report said.

An 'Unacceptable Cost

Five states set new fundraising records last year, including Alabama, where the race for chief justice was the second most expensive judicial election in U.S. history. Alabama's high court candidates raised a record $13.4 million in 2006.

Voters in that state saw about 17,000 television ads, many of them attack ads, during the campaign — that was more than during the last three election cycles combined. One ad warned that a candidate had freed a convicted killer from death row. Another warned that a candidate was "too liberal." A third insinuated that a candidate supported gay marriage.

In Georgia, former Attorney General John Ashcroft recorded an automated phone call in which he said an incumbent judge was a "liberal activist" … "who will stop at nothing to win," according to the Brennan Center report.

Television ads are now the norm in judicial elections, the report said. In 2000, candidates in four of 18 states ran television ads in judicial elections; last year, candidates in 10 of 11 states did.

"Just a few years ago it was a blip on the radar," said the Brennan Center's James Sample. "Now it's a mainstay in judicial elections."

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