Orlando, FL - Just before sunset on a recent evening, scores of lawyers in dark suits and polished loafers streamed into the swanky 18th-floor ballroom of a downtown high-rise here. They sipped chardonnay and nursed Heinekens, munched on cheese cubes and made small talk.
The invitation to the event had asked for a “suggested contribution” of $500 to each of three candidates, who were now mingling sheepishly among the crowd. They were no ordinary politicians. In fact, they weren’t politicians at all, but rather Florida Supreme Court justices. Each has been in office since the 1990s, each retained by voters overwhelmingly in previous elections, and each now reluctantly campaigning — for the first time.
While deep-pocketed super PACs and ultra-wealthy donors have attracted plenty of attention in the presidential contest this year, they are also making waves further down the political food chain. The mere possibility that a rich benefactor or interest group with endless amounts of money could swoop in, write massive checks and remake an entire court for ideological reasons has prompted judges here in Florida and elsewhere to prepare for battles they never expected to fight.
In a 2010 study that examined 29 judicial races, the watchdog group Justice at Stake found that the top five spenders averaged $473,000 apiece, while all other donors averaged $850. In addition, loopholes in disclosure laws gave those big donors ways to spend money “in substantial secrecy,” the report found.
“Outside forces are becoming a bigger deal,” said Roy Schotland, a Georgetown University law professor and expert on judicial elections. “We’re seeing more takeover of the races from the outside.”
Schotland said state judicial races are increasingly becoming “floating auctions,” in which special-interest groups focus money and manpower in states where they can upend judges they don’t like. “The justices are like sitting ducks,” he said.
Judicial races have been attractive to donors in the past in part because of their relative obscurity. The contests often draw little public scrutiny, voters rarely know the names on the ballots, and backing them is cheaper than trying to buy an entire state legislature.
“It’s the single best investment in American politics,” said Charles Hall, spokesman for Justice at Stake. “A few big spenders can really have an outsize effect.”
From 2000 to 2009, spending on judicial campaigns more than doubled over the previous decade, according to a joint report by Justice at Stake, the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.