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Judicial Campaigns: Money, Mudslinging and an Erosion of Public Trust

Thirty-nine states elect their judges in some fashion. What once were “sleepy little affairs,” judicial campaigns have become high-stakes races, drawing in big money and increasingly negative advertising campaigns. In 2006, an estimated $16 million was spent on advertising in supreme court races in 10 states, a record. If predictions hold true, contests in 2008 promise to be more expensive — and nasty.

But big money and mudslinging are undermining public trust in the judiciary and the ability of judges to act independently and impartially.

To call attention to this trend and its consequences, the AnnenbergPublicPolicyCenter’s ( convened judges, political consultants, good-government watchdogs and journalists for a conference Wednesday in Washington.

“This is an under-reported issue,” said Viveca Novak, FactCheck’s deputy director, who organized the event.

Direct election of judges is extremely popular with Americans. “The public isn’t going to give up on the notion that they should be able to elect judges,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center. Nearly 65 percent of Americans want to elect those who sit on the bench, according to a national survey by the PolicyCenter.

Even so, said Jamieson, seven of 10 of those polled in the Center’s 2006 survey said they believe the necessity to raise campaign funds will affect a judge’s rulings once in office. Sixty-three percent believe that pressures from past contributors would affect a judge’s fairness and impartiality to a great or moderate extent. Click here to read more findings.

“Money has a series of pernicious effects,” Jamieson told the conference. “The survey data suggest that once you destabilize the perception of impartiality and fairness, you begin to erode trust in the judiciary and confidence that judges work for the well-being of the public good.”