Buying The Courts

National outside groups are seeking to use judicial elections to promote their right wing agenda at the expense of the middle class. Case in point: Tennessee.

National Conservative Groups Spend Big Against Tennessee Supreme Court Justices

In a week full of primary elections, one local story stands out: the nearly unprecedented effort by organized national conservative groups to influence judicial elections in Tennessee. Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity (AFP) and the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) have teamed up with Tennessee’s lieutenant governor to oppose three state Supreme Court justices, in an effort to stack the court in a more conservative way. A judge has been removed only once in the state’s history, but that could change today.

Tennesseans heading to the polls today will decide whether three Supreme Court judges appointed by former Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, will stay on the bench. If the judges are voted out, current Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, will fill the vacancies.

The election has important implications for Tennessee citizens–which is why national conservative groups are using it as a clarion call for their right wing agenda and are pouring nearly a million into influencing the outcome. The RSLC is spending around $200,000 to defeat the judges — out of “north of $5 million” that they plan to spend on judicial elections this year. AFP and the State Government Leadership Foundation, a partner group of the RSLC, have spent big money that they raised from secret donors. And that is on top of the $425,000 that a political action committee set up by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey (R) has spent.

On the other side, the Washington Post reports that the incumbent judges have raised just over $1 million to defend themselves against this onslaught.

According to RSLC’s president, “Republicans have had a significant amount of success at the state level, not only being elected to offices but implementing bold conservative solutions… Unfortunately, that’s running into a hard stop with judges who aren’t in touch with the public.” The “bold conservative” policies that have been struck down include legislation that disenfranchises voters, keeps injured citizens from filing lawsuits, and cuts essential services like health care and education. After the RSLC helped elect Republican legislators in Tennessee and North Carolina, the legislatures passed two of the nation’s strictest voter ID laws.

More broadly, the involvement of outside right-wing groups in this campaign is a example of the increasing politicization of judicial elections across the country. More and more money is being spent on them — according to one analysis, the total spending on judicial elections in the 2011-2012 cycle broke the previous record by $7 million, or over 25 percent:

And with promises by the likes of the RSLC to spend $5 million this year alone, those numbers are sure to increase.

In addition, it should come as no surprise that the more outside cash, the more distorted the state Supreme Court rulings. That’s according to a report from the Center for American Progress, which found a link between campaign cash and more rulings “in favor of prosecutors and against criminal defendants” as judges feel the pressure to appear “tough on crime.”

BOTTOM LINE: In Tennessee, national conservative groups are attempting to buy judicial appointments to ensure their right-wing policies are rubber stamped by the Courts. Instead of local Courts being a check on the other branches of government, conservative groups are spending millions to insert the kind of partisanship that has already caused Americans to distrust government. This only hurts our democracy — citizens deserve independent courts that decide each case based on the facts and the law, not politics or partisanship.

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