Group draws ideological line in debate over judicial elections

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By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 10, 2010

Record spending on judicial elections around the country has prompted calls for changes from a broad array of advocates, including moderate conservatives such as retired Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

But a report issued Thursday by a small conservative group active in judicial elections alleges that the efforts to change such elections amount to a campaign to bolster liberals, with backing from financier and philanthropist George Soros.

The report from the American Justice Partnership alleges that Soros has spent millions on "a highly coordinated, well-funded campaign" to "fundamentally alter the composition of America's state courts."

Some advocacy groups say the report's allegations are ludicrous, noting that they hold varying views on how best to change judicial elections and enjoy support from both parties.

The report underscores an increasingly sharp political debate over the role played by campaign contributions in states where judges stand for elections. Some advocate contribution limits or doing away with elections altogether in favor of judicial appointments.

One study released this year calculated that campaign expenditures on state high-court elections have more than doubled within the past decade, reaching $48 million in 2008.

This year stands a good chance of meeting or exceeding that amount, with contentious judicial races focused on abortion, same-sex marriage and other hot topics. In Iowa, for example, conservative activists are trying to oust three judges on the state Supreme Court whose unanimous ruling last year legalized same-sex unions.

Colleen Pero, a Michigan judicial activist who wrote Thursday's report, said she combed through tax records from Soros's foundations to identify more than $45 million given within the past decade to advocacy groups dealing with judicial issues.

Pero, who managed the 2008 campaign of a Republican judge who was defeated, said the money has been used to "support ongoing and invidious attacks on the independence of the judiciary" around the country.

Several of the largest groups singled out for criticism say Pero's accusations are fundamentally flawed because advocates of both parties are concerned about corruption in the courts but differ on the best solutions.

Bert Brandenburg, executive director of the Justice at Stake Campaign, said the organization sponsoring the report has been one of the leading players in judicial elections within the past decade, spending more than $2 million on campaigns. The American Justice Partnership, which is registered as a nonprofit group, declines to identify its funders.

"Any effort to draw this out as an ideological issue is misguided," said Michael Waldman of the Brennan Center for Justice, another group targeted by the report. "Everybody should care about the independence of the judiciary."

Aryeh Neier, president of Soros's institute and foundations, said he is proud of efforts to limit the influence of corporations and other special interests in state courts, noting a recent Supreme Court decision that rebuked a judge for helping decide a case benefiting a coal company that supported his election.

"Increasingly there has been corrupt influence on state judiciaries through spending in elections," Neier said. "As far as I'm concerned, this is essential work to try to protect their integrity."


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