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The Influence Industry: Judicial elections, corporate policies give glimpse into 2012

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Two studies scheduled to be released Thursday offer contrasting predictions for the 2012 elections: Outside groups are likely to spend more money than ever, but many top corporations may not be among them.

The first analysis, by a trio of advocacy organizations, found that almost a third of the money spent on state judicial elections last year came from outside interest groups — a dramatic departure from historic norms. The authors argue that the pattern is a harbinger of the spending to come across the board next year.

The second study, by the Center for Political Accountability, found that most companies in the S&P 100 have adopted policies requiring that they disclose any direct corporate spending on politics. In addition, the survey found, many are limiting or banning such spending.

Both studies highlight the rapidly shifting landscape around campaign finance restrictions, which were significantly loosened by a Supreme Court ruling in 2010, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission , allowing corporations to spend unlimited money on elections.

The decision has paved the way for a surge in fundraising and expenditures by outside advocacy groups, including a new breed of political action committee called the super PAC, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money.

“This is the new normal,” said Bert Brandenburg of Justice at Stake, one of the sponsors of the judicial elections study. “It could well be that this is a signpost of where political spending as a whole is going.”

The judicial study, which was sponsored also by the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Institute on Money in State Politics, found that $38.4 million was spent on state high court elections in 2010. About 30 percent of that, or $11.5 million, came from groups unconnected to candidates.

In addition, the study found that much of the spending was driven by a handful of politically minded groups, with 10 organizations spending a combined $15 million.

The findings mirror a similar review in 2010, which found a steadily escalating pace of expenditures in the three dozen states where Supreme Court judges stand for election or retention. The spending is driven by outside interest groups both on the left, such as unions and trial lawyers, and on the right, by groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its affiliates.

One of the races that drew nationwide attention last year was in Iowa, where social conservative groups mounted a successful campaign to unseat three Supreme Court judges who had voted to legalize same-sex marriage. Outside groups spent more than $1.4 million on the election, a remarkable figure for a small, inexpensive media market such as Iowa.

Independent groups also spent big on judicial races in Michigan, Ohio and Illinois, the study found.

“A very small group of super-spenders have played a disproportionate role in these judicial elections,” said Adam Skaggs, Brennan Center senior counsel. “That disproportionate influence is obviously a concern in terms of keeping the courts impartial.”

While the general tide of court rulings and spending has stoked expectations of heavier corporate involvement in elections, the Center for Political Accountability study casts some doubts on that assumption.

The study found that disclosure of political spending is “the new norm” for many major corporations, many of which have gone so far as to ban spending from company coffers on elections. (Nearly every major company in the United States continues to run PACs that collect limited donations from employees.)

Bruce F. Freed, the CPA’s president, said shareholder pressure and a series of public relations disasters have pushed many companies to increase transparency when it comes to spending on political issues.

Last year, Target and Best Buy came under fire from gay rights groups for contributing money to a pro-business group backing a candidate opposed to same-sex marriage.

“That was a searing case for many corporations,” Freed said. “Companies don’t like being symbols.”

Fifty-seven of the 100 firms either disclose direct corporate political spending or, in the case of companies such as IBM and Colgate-Palmolive, prohibit it, the study found. About a third of the companies place some restrictions on political spending.

“There’s still room for improvement, but this is a work in progress moving forward,” Freed said. “Companies are really feeling pressure now in the wake of Citizens United to make their policies clear.”

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