In some places, that much spending on a judicial race would be considered scandalous.
In Alabama, it’s a bargain-basement price.
Alabama routinely tops the charts in campaign spending on judicial races. In the eight-year span from 2000 to 2008, judicial races totted up $40 million in campaign funds for elected judges, according to Justice at Stake, a group that monitors those expenses. In Ohio, the state with the next-priciest judicial elections, judges raised and spent only $21 million — about half of Alabama’s toll. The 2006 Alabama Supreme Court race, which burned through $13 million in donor money, is the most expensive Supreme Court election ever, according to Justice at Stake.
All that campaign money has some critics worried about donors’ potential influence on the justice system.
“The courts are supposed to represent everybody equally, to a degree that’s not expected of other branches of government,” said James Sample, a Hofstra University law professor who has co-authored studies on the cost of judicial races around the country.
Only a small portion of the population donates to political races of any sort, Sample said, and judicial races generate less popular interest than other contests. That means campaigns are funded largely by “a very, very small, well-moneyed group of individuals,” he said.
“The perception of pay-for-play justice is there,” he said. “Even if it’s just a perception, that perception is a problem.”
Some states don’t have judicial elections at all. Twenty-nine states follow the federal model, with appointed Supreme Courts. Only eight, Alabama included, hold partisan elections for judgeships.
But this year, the high-dollar trend seems to be reversing in a major way, thanks to a combination of oddities.
In the Republican primary, former Chief Justice Roy Moore faced off against sitting Chief Justice Chuck Malone and former Attorney General Charlie Graddick.
Moore was already famous as the man who was kicked off the state’s highest court for placing a Ten Commandments monument on the court’s front steps and defying an order to move it. Graddick, a newly minted member of the GOP, was famous for his involvement in a hard-fought Democratic primary in the 1980s. Malone, though the incumbent, was a relative unknown, having been appointed chief justice after Democrat Sue Bell Cobb resigned.
The money was with Malone. He bought the most air time in the Birmingham market, with $240,000 spent on ads on shows ranging from “The View” to “Modern Family” to the regular old 6 o’clock news. Graddick also dug deep, spending $132,000 on ads during news shows and popular entertainment programs such as “Wheel of Fortune.” Moore spent the least, with $52,825, mostly spent on news shows.
Those numbers track closely with overall campaign donation figures, which show Malone raising more than $700,000 total, Graddick raising more than $300,000 and Moore raising just $78,000 before the primary.
Moore won the nomination. He has since raised about $118,000, largely in small donations from around the country.
The total, just more than $1 million raised, puts this year’s race well below the average for a chief justice race in Alabama.
And the bulk of the money in the 2012 judicial election may already be spent. In the general election, Moore faces Democratic nominee Harry Lyon, a Pelham attorney who has seen the judicial system from both sides. In 2001, Lyon was convicted of menacing after a conflict with a neighbor. In 1998, Lyon was shot by a neighbor who claimed Lyon was vandalizing his car. The neighbor was acquitted.
Lyon ran unopposed and didn’t buy any advertising in his race for the Democratic nomination. He hasn’t filed any campaign finance reports. Lyon said he doesn’t have to, because his campaign funds don’t add up to the $25,000 lower limit at which reporting is required.
He didn’t sound very hopeful that he’d ever raise enough money to report.
“I would welcome donations from individuals, but I won’t take any money from a PAC or special interest,” he said.
Moore acknowledged that his wide name recognition, from the days of the Ten Commandments controversy, changed the game this year.
“I think the name recognition had a lot to do with it,” he said. “I think people recognized that I was fair on the court.”
Gerard Gryski, chair of the political science department at Auburn University, said he doubts the Democrats will invest in Lyon’s candidacy. And it’s possible that this year could mark a long-term drop in the cost of judicial races, he said. If Republicans come to dominate the court as they have other statewide elections in recent years, he said, the cost of general elections would drop to nearly nothing.
“It sounds like the Republicans don’t have to spend anything because they know they’re going to win it,” he said. “Democrats don’t want to spend anything because they know they’re going to lose it. And I don’t see that changing in the near future.”
Sample, the Hofstra law professor, isn’t so sure. Other states with high-dollar judicial races have had dips in spending, he said, though those dips didn’t last. Sample thinks there may still be big-money primary blowouts in the future.
“I doubt this problem is going away,” he said.