U.S. Chamber Tips the Scales in State Supreme Court Elections

By: Grace Aylmer, Campaign Coordinator, U.S. Chamber Watch project

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has a decades-long history of spending copious amount of money to elect pro-corporate judges to state courts. Back in 2000, the U.S. Chamber began a 10 million dollar effort to elect judges in five states- Alabama, Illinois, Michigan, Mississippi, and Ohio.

The Chamber and its big business allies have spent millions to elect judges who will represent the corporate perspective in the court, limiting consumers’ rights to sue corporations, siding with corporate defendants over injured workers or consumers, blocking efforts to reduce pollution, and stymieing laws and regulations meant to protect public health and safety.

Outside spending groups like the Chamber of Commerce have the ability to make unlimited donations to other outside spending groups, in addition to not having limits on what they receive from their own donors. In some states, these groups don’t even have to disclose the monies they spend on electioneering activity. The Chamber and its big business allies have already surpassed prior records for TV spending in state Supreme Court elections. Total outside group spending for the current state supreme court election cycle is an estimated $15.6 million, exceeding the previous record set in 2011-12 by over $2 million.

The Chamber has gotten involved in several state judicial elections, pouring in millions to try and elect pro-corporate, anti-consumer judges.  In North Carolina, this year’s state Supreme Court election has the potential to flip the state Supreme Court’s majority from Republican-affiliated judges to Democratic-affiliated judges. The race, between incumbent Justice Robert Edmunds and his challenger, State Superior Court Judge Michael Morgan, has garnered national attention from social and racial justice groups because of the court’s role in congressional redistricting. Edmunds, who is being supported by the Chamber, previously ruled in favor of the state’s congressional map, despite it being ruled unconstitutional in August after 28 of 170 legislative districts were found to be racially gerrymandered. The North Carolina Chamber of Commerce recently received $1 million from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal Reform that has been spent on TV ads supporting Edmunds.

Another “dark” money outside spender in North Carolina is Fair Judges, a group that received $300,000 from the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), which is the biggest spender in state Supreme Court elections. The Chamber, which contributed over $2 million in 2016 and over $3 million in 2014 to nationwide efforts, is the largest donor to the RSLC, contributing more than twice as much as the next biggest donor.

What’s even scarier than the amount of outside dark money spending flooding into state judicial races is the negative nature of the ads that are being paid for with this money.

In Montana, a state Supreme Court race between pro-corporate law professor Kristen Juras and district court judge Dirk Sandefur provides a startling example. “Child Porn,” “Satanic Ritual,” and “Raping 10 year old” jump out in glaring block letters set against an ominous background on an attack site against Judge Sandefur. The site, StopSetEmFreeSandefur.com, is run by a group that has received more than $200,000  from the Chamber-funded RSLC. It houses a 30 second ad, stating “for some, it’s Judge Dirk Sandefur’s refusal to give prison time to two child pornographers, for others, the last straw is Judge Sandefur’s mere seven year sentence for a man guilty of repeatedly raping a 10-year old girl, but for all, Dirk Sandefur’s decision to give no prison time to a man convicted of sexually assaulting a toddler and holding a gun to the child’s head…is the last straw.”

While much of nation’s attention has been focused on an unconventional presidential race, the problem of unlimited, undisclosed “dark” money and nasty attack ads has been largely overlooked in the nation’s equally important judicial elections, and North Carolina and Montana provide only a snapshot of the Chamber’s influence over our courts. When excessive money is spent on judicial elections by the Chamber  it raises the question of who the courts really serve.

Outside spending may leave judges feeling beholden to the corporate special interests that put them into office, threatening the integrity of our judicial system and reinforcing the concern that citizen voices are being drowned out.