Bankrolling the Bench: New Report Demonstrates Need for SEC to Require Political Spending Disclosure

In the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s appalling Citizens United ruling, Corporate America’s attempts to exert undue influence and block reform efforts in the U.S. Congress are nothing new.

A new report offers fresh evidence that Big Business has its sights set on our justice system too. State Supreme Court elections are the prime targets for corporate interests’ effort to control state benches. The motive: stack the courts with “business-friendly” judges. The implications are hard to overstate and deeply scary.

The report, Bankrolling the Bench: The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2013-14, was produced by three nonpartisan organizations: Justice at Stake, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics. It found that in 2013 and 2014, state Supreme Court election spending took place in 19 states and exceeded $34.5 million — much of it coming from corporate spenders, although the identities of many spenders are unknown due to spending by secret money outfits like the Koch-affiliated Americans for Prosperity. In the post-Citizens United world, this secret spending is rapidly eclipsing direct donations to campaigns as the preferred way for special interests to wield their influence.

Why does this matter? Almost all cases initiated in the United States – as in about 95 percent – are filed in state courts. Almost 90 percent of state appellate court judges must regularly seek reelection. These judges’ dockets address issues as diverse as education, the environment, commercial disputes, voting rights, criminal justice, real estate, health care, and corporate accountability. When secretive political spending is aimed at stacking state courts with judges who put corporate interests before the public interest, every one of these issues is impacted, as is our right to fair and impartial courts.

A few examples help make the point. Nationwide, seven of the top 10 spenders in state Supreme Court races analyzed were conservative or business groups or state Republican parties. The Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) led the pack, spending nearly $3.4 million across state Supreme Court elections in several states.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the RSLC’s biggest contributors this cycle were the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, tobacco corporations Reynolds American and Altria Group, casino company Las Vegas Sands, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, and a variety of energy, pharmaceutical, and telecommunications companies. RSLC was a major player in an Illinois judicial election that revolved around a multibillion-dollar tobacco lawsuit, and it was a big spender in North Carolina, where one of its local contributors is Duke Energy – a polluter par excellence that fought a deadline to clean up leaking coal ash dumps.

The examples go on and on. Against this backdrop, it’s more urgent than ever that the SEC step up and require that corporations do what shareholders have a right to demand: require political spending transparency.

It’s bad enough that we must combat corporate influence in our political system. Bankrolling the Bench warns us that corporate domination of the courts could be an equally alarming, if under-reported, crisis caused by Citizens United.

Rick Claypool is the online director for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.

Sign up to receive a weekly email highlighting the best from Public Citizen’s blogs.