Change will be felt in courtrooms as well as the White House after elections this past Tuesday, as two chief justices and two supreme court incumbents were unseated after weeks of negative television ads and millions of dollars of fundraising.
Michigan’s Supreme Court race turned into the nation’s nastiest judicial campaign, according to a nonpartisan organization that monitors judicial races. Bert Brandenburg, executive director of the Justice at Stake Campaign, a bipartisan organization in Washington, D.C., that tracks state judicial elections, described the race as an “orgy of negativity.”


happy judge.jpgMichigan is one of a half-dozen fall court races marked by heavy spending and organized attempts by special interests, political parties and an emerging class of “super-donors” to pack courts with judges to their liking.
But the race also yielded one of the most surprising upsets, Michigan Chief Justice Cliff Taylor, a Republican, lost to Democrat Diane Marie Hathaway, 39% to 49%. Taylor raised $1.8 million, breaking his own record of $1.3 million set in 2000, according to Hall. Hathaway raised about $420,000.
The Brennan Center for Justice recently reported that Taylor and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce spent a combined $1,098,330 on TV ads in the two-week period ending October 24 — more than four times what was spent on Hathaway ads.
In the final weeks before Election Day, almost $5 million was spent on television ads across the country, bringing the total amount spent on the airwaves to $17 million, slightly more than in 2006. Nationally, $165 million was raised for state Supreme Court races in 1999-2007, compared with $62 million in 1993-1998.
In addition to Michigan, other states are noteworthy; Mississippi, where an attack ad was pulled off the air by one network after it proved false; Alabama, where special interest spending on court elections has become a central issue; Texas, where state Democrats mounted an expensive challenge against the state’s all-Republican Supreme Court; Louisiana, where a record was set for television spending in an Oct. 4 preliminary Supreme Court election; and West Virginia, where three candidates fought for two seats after a special interest-tainted chief justice was defeated in a primary.
One of the closest races was in Alabama, where Republican Greg Shaw, a judge on the state’s Court of Criminal Appeals, defeated Democrat Deborah Bell Paseur, a retired district judge in Lauderdale County, with a 50.4% majority that was declared on Wednesday morning. The race was not only one of the tightest, but also the most expensive in the nation. Alabama has no spending limits, and between Shaw and Paseur, reportedly $3.8 million was raised.
In Texas, the state’s Democratic Party made an unusual push for the Texas Supreme Court, whose members are all Republicans, by investing $1 million in TV ads for three Democratic candidates vying for slots on the state’s highest court. All three lost.
A bigger threat in Texas came in Houston, where the Harris County Republican Party spent $1.6 million on a campaign, including television ads, to retain the 26 Republican trial judges running for reelection. Of those, 22 were unseated by Democratic challengers.
Happily, on Tuesday, voters endorsed merit selection of judges, rather than elections, in Greene County, Mo., and Johnson County, Kansas, according to Justice at Stake. This is the system used to select state judges in Colorado and generally works relatively well – at least we are not subjected to even more political attack ads.

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