During the last cycle of state Supreme Court elections, Illinois had the largest share of outside spending by interest groups. That's according to a new national report on campaign finance, which also showed that Illinois ranked second in the nation for the total amount of outside spending in 2014 state Supreme Court elections.
Illinois ranked first in the nation for the share of outside spending in state Supreme Court races by special interest groups during the last election cycle, a recent analysis shows.
Republican Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier was up for retention in 2014, and nearly 90 percent of the $3.35 million spent on the election came from two outside special interest groups, according to the research from the nonpartisan organizations the Brennan Center for Justice, Justice at Stake and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
The national report, "Bankrolling the Bench: The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2013-14," showed that Illinois came in second behind Michigan for the total amount of outside spending in Supreme Court races during the last cycle and fourth for overall dollars spent on such elections.
In all, more than $34.5 million was spent on state Supreme Court races in the 2013-2014 election cycle in 19 states, according to the report.
Of that $34.5 million, outside spending by interest groups, excluding political parties, represented 29 percent, up from the previous record-high share of 27 percent during the 2011-2012 cycle, the report found.
When spending by political parties was taken into account, the share of outside spending on 2014 state Supreme Court elections shot up to 40 percent.
"As special interest groups continue to pump money into judicial races, Americans will rightfully question whether courtroom decisions are being influenced by campaign cash," report co-author Alicia Bannon with the Brennan Center for Justice said in a statement. "Fifteen years of data makes clear that high-cost and politicized judicial elections are not going away. States are long overdue in rethinking how they select judges and in adopting common sense reforms such as public financing and stronger rules regulating when judges must step aside from cases. Without real policy change, fair and impartial justice is at risk."
In Illinois, Karmeier won his retention election last year with 60.8 percent of the vote, just above the 60 percent threshold he needed.
A "spending battle" by outside interest groups in the race began less than a month before Karmeier narrowly secured another term. Much of that $3 million in outside spending was connected to a "high-stakes, multibillion-dollar" tobacco case that had been pending before the state's high court, the report authors explained.
The case involved a $10 billion class-action verdict from 2003 against Philip Morris. The judgement stemmed from a lawsuit brought by smokers alleging the tobacco giant had deceptively marketed its "light" and "low-tar" cigarettes as safer options.
Back in 2005, the Illinois Supreme Court invalidated that lower-court verdict by a 4-2 vote, with Karmeier joining the majority. Then, last year, Illinois' 5th District Appellate Court reinstated the verdict, and the state's high court later agreed to hear Philip Morris' appeal.
On Wednesday, the state's high court ruled in the case. The Supreme Court sided with Philip Morris by overturning the lower court's decision to reinstate the verdict. Karmeier joined the majority in the 4-2 decision.
When the case was still pending before the Supreme Court last year, an Illinois-based political committee funded by plaintiffs' lawyers formed about month prior to Karmeier's retention election.
Eighty-five percent of the funding provided to the "Campaign for 2016" committee came from attorneys and law firms assisting the plaintiffs in the Philip Morris case, according to the report.
Campaign for 2016 put $1.1 million toward TV ads, some of which accused Karmeier of being a "special interest judge." That accusation alluded to Karmeier's refusal to recuse himself from "cases allegedly involving campaign supporters, both in the earlier iteration of the Philip Morris litigation, as well as in another multimillion-dollar suit involving State Farm Insurance," the report authors explained.
Campaign for 2016 spent over $2 million in the retention election in Illinois -- the second highest amount spent last cycle by an outside interest group in state Supreme Court races.
The Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) was also involved in the retention election, with its Illinois affiliate spending nearly $980,000 on pro-Karmeier phone banking and TV ads touting him as one who has "no leniency for violent criminals."
"The RSLC," according to the report authors, "received big financial backing from Philip Morris through its parent company Altria, although the company denied earmarking funds for the Supreme Court election."
Overall, the two outside interest groups spent a record $1.8 million on TV advertising in the retention election for Karmeier. And negative advertising made up 71 percent of all the ad spots.
Report co-author Scott Greytak with Justice at Stake raised concerns about the uptick in special interest spending on judicial elections.
"The hard numbers make it clear: when judges have to run for election, there is a risk that the concerns of ordinary people will take a back seat to the special interests and politicians who are trying to reshape courts to fit their agendas," he said in a statement. "This turns how we choose our judges into a political circus that is bad for our courts and bad for democracy. The good news is that we can fix this. We can work toward real reforms like merit selection, to help get money and politics out of the process, so judges can focus on their real work instead of raising money and fending off political attacks, and so all of us can have confidence that our courts are fair and impartial."