Stateline Story

Election 2004 Transforms State Supreme Court Races

  • November 08, 2004
  • By Kathleen Hunter

This year's elections infused so much money and TV advertising into state supreme court races that they set a high-water mark and may make seeking judicial office as expensive and competitive as running for governor or even the U.S. Senate, state court watchers say.

In a hotly contested Illinois Supreme Court race, two candidates took in at least $8.9 million in contributions the most ever in a state judicial campaign and more than in a number of U.S. Senate races this year.

The winner -- Republican Lloyd Karmeier -- raised almost $4.6 million, while the loser -- Gordon Maag (D) -- raised about $4.4 million, according to preliminary finance reports. And it wasn't even a statewide race; Illinois' Supreme Court justices are elected from seven districts.

The Illinois race drew national attention and dollars because it is in a district that over the past few years has been a hotbed for personal-injury and product-liability litigation.

When final campaign-finance totals are in, experts predict this year's fund raising for state judicial races nationwide will shatter records. Money from special interests poured into state judicial campaigns, and use of television advertising skyrocketed, said Jesse Rutledge, communications director for the Justice at Stake Campaign, a Washington, D.C., coalition that advocates for an impartial judiciary.

"The transformation of judicial elections is almost complete," Rutledge said. "In the past, these elections were relatively tame, tranquil contests. In a majority of states now, the races are dominated by special interests, television advertisements and record sums of money. That's an unfortunate transformation."

Besides Illinois, elections in other states also saw large influxes of cash and controversy.

In West Virginia, special interest groups spent at least $3.5 million -- in addition to $2.8 million raised by the two candidates -- in a particularly nasty race that unseated incumbent Justice Warren McGraw (D).

Meanwhile, Alabama, which has become a perennial judicial battleground, elected Republican Tom Parker, a former aide to ousted Chief Justice Roy Moore, even after Parker told The Associated Press two weeks before the election that he recently attended a party commemorating the birthday of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, founder of the Ku Klux Klan.

More than $38 million was raised in the 20 states that filled high court seats Nov. 2. When final figures are in, experts predict this campaign cycle could break the record $45 million raised in 2000.

Television ads appeared in supreme court races in 15 states, up from nine states in 2002 and just four states in 2000, the first year that the ads appeared in state high court races.

In all, 38 states hold some sort of election for supreme court justices. In the other 12 states, justices are appointed by the governor, similar to the federal system in which judges are appointed by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

In addition to high court judges, 11 states also filled posts for attorney general Nov. 2, with incumbents faring well across the board.

In nine states (Indiana, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Utah, Vermont and West Virginia), incumbent attorneys general were re-elected, while in Pennsylvania and Washington voters chose new top law enforcement officials after incumbents opted not to seek re-election.

In Pennsylvania, Republican Tom Corbett narrowly defeated Democrat Jim Eisenhower. Corbett will replace Republican Attorney General Jerry Pappert.

In Washington, Republican Rob McKenna handily defeated Democrat Deborah Senn to replace Attorney General Christine Gregoire, the Democratic candidate in that state's still-undecided gubernatorial race.

Gregoire wasn't the only sitting attorney general to attempt to step up the political ladder. In Colorado, Attorney General Ken Salazar (D) clinched a U.S. Senate seat in a hard-fought race against Republican brewing company executive Peter Coors. Under Colorado's Constitution, Gov. Bill Owens (R) will name a replacement who -- subject to state Senate confirmation -- will serve until the next scheduled election in 2006. Salazar is expected serve as attorney general until he is sworn in to the Senate.

With McKenna's win in Washington state, there will be 29 Democratic and 21 Republican state attorneys general --- a one-post gain for Republicans. If Owens, a Republican, selects a member of his own party to replace Salazar in Colorado, Republicans will control an additional post.

Forty-three states elect an attorney general. In five states (Alaska, Hawaii, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Wyoming), the governor appoints the attorney general. In Maine, the Legislature selects the attorney general by secret ballot, and in Tennessee the official is chosen by the state Supreme Court.