Sept. 21, 2015

States Should End the Secrecy, Make Litigants Disclose Judicial Campaign Spending

Disclosure Would Provide Judicial Independence, Protect Integrity of Courts

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Illinois, Michigan, North Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wisconsin should require litigants to publicly disclose all of their spending on judicial elections, Public Citizen said today.

In a letter to each state’s chief justice, Public Citizen President Robert Weissman proposed a simple remedy to help ensure the integrity of the state’s courts. It comes in response to spending on judicial elections, which has soared in recent decades, as has outside spending – election spending by organizations not coordinated with a candidate or party – especially since the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court Citizens United decision.

In a separate case, Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., the Supreme Court concluded that a serious risk of bias exists when a person with a personal stake in a case raises money for the judge overseeing the case. Litigants can ask judges to recuse themselves, but if the money was funneled through an outside group, the expenditure in many cases wouldn’t be public.

The solution: Litigants – people and businesses that are party to a case, as well as their attorneys – should be required to disclose annually their contributions to influence any judicial election. The information would be disclosed to the state supreme courts at the time of litigants’ first appearance in a case, and it would cover both direct contributions and donations to outside groups that spend money to influence judicial elections.

This would require very little work from litigants or the courts (which would need only maintain a publicly available, centralized website), but it would get needed campaign spending information to litigants and the public, Weissman said.

“It’s hard to see how we can have judicial independence when judges are dependent for their office on a handful of big donors,” said Weissman. “The states should take a step in the right direction and end the secrecy by making litigants disclose their spending in judicial elections.”

Public Citizen will call on other state supreme courts across the country to do the same thing.

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View the Michigan letter.
View the North Carolina letter.
View the Tennessee letter.
View the West Virginia letter.
View the Wisconsin letter.
View the Illinois letter (sent on Sept. 17, 2015).