Lousy Judgment

This year’s scary election ads will destroy any lingering confidence in the judicial branch.

Law Enforcement Alliance of America ad against Tim Cullen.
A scene from a Law Enforcement Alliance of America ad against Tim Cullen.

Screenshot Brennan Center for Justice

If you really think about it, who among us hasn’t been accused on television of coddling child molesters?

A few years ago, in the spirit of Halloween, we created an “Evil Men in Black Robes” Halloween Spooktackular, pulling together some of the worst in scary judicial election attack ads. Well, they’re baaaaack, and some of them are worse than ever. This time it’s not just the judicial candidates literally inhabiting the pockets of special interests (although we do have a creepy pocket judge again), but also sitting judges accused of coddling child molesters, rapists, and more.

In 39 states, some or all judges must face some kind of election—often a partisan one. These races used to be about as interesting to watch as Bingo night. But now, it’s all Law and Order, and all the time. The ads are scarier than the shows they interrupt.

These new judicial attack ads are a consequence of a series of Supreme Court rulings that have allowed judicial elections to get noisier, nastier, and costlier, with no limit on outside spending by groups such as the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity. As the Brennan Center and Justice at Stake just reported, “With less than a week until Election Day, special interest groups have dramatically increased TV ad spending to influence state Supreme Court races in Illinois, Michigan, Montana, North Carolina, and Ohio. Outside groups have spent nearly $2.1 million on TV ad buys in these states for the November general election, with nearly $1 million spent over the last week.”

The Institute for Southern Studies reported today that the candidates running for the North Carolina Supreme Court have raised nearly $3.8 million for their campaigns this year and that outside political groups have spent an additional $1.4 million on the state supreme court race, for a total of a record-shattering $5.2 million. Congratulations North Carolina! That’s a small price to pay to completely destroy any lingering confidence in the judicial branch!

Judges themselves are becoming more brazen and political too. Ohio Supreme Court Justice Judith L. French told a campaign crowd recently: “‘I am a Republican and you should vote for me. You’re going to hear from your elected officials, and I see a lot of them in the crowd. Let me tell you something: The Ohio Supreme Court is the backstop for all those other votes you are going to cast. Whatever the governor does, whatever your state representative, your state senator does, whatever they do, we are the ones that will decide whether it is constitutional; we decide whether it’s lawful. We decide what it means, and we decide how to implement it in a given case. So, forget all those other votes if you don’t keep the Ohio Supreme Court conservative.”

And the ads and campaigning matter. A new report by two Emory University professors, Joanna Shepherd and Michael Kang, found that the more campaign ads run in state judicial elections, the tougher these judges get on crime. But the real effect of these increasingly nasty ads, and the fundraising demands that come along with responding to these increasingly nasty ads, is an aggregate loss of confidence in the capacity of the judicial branch to be fair and unbiased. A  2010 Harris poll found that more than 70 percent of respondents thought that campaign contributions influence courtroom decisions. These ads are expensive. They force judges to dial for dollars. And they make all of us feel filthy and sad.

Here are just some of the judicial attack ads that made us shudder.