Dorothy Samuels & Alicia Bannon

Dorothy Samuels is a senior fellow and Alicia Bannon is senior counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.

Recent Articles

Big Money’s Other Casualty: Fair Courts

Record spending by secretive outside special interests in state supreme court races poses a stark threat to the impartiality of the nation’s courts. 

(Photo: AP/Ted S. Warren)
Record special-interest spending on state supreme court elections in 2016 drew less notice than Donald Trump’s assault on democracy norms, but the upshot is nevertheless dangerous: an erosion of the impartiality of the nation’s courts. Uncapped and underreported outside spending by interest groups dominated judicial elections in 2016 as never before. Special-interest groups spent nearly 50 percent more on TV ads in contests for powerful state supreme court seats than they had in the previous presidential election cycle—$20 million compared with the previous high of $13.5 million in 2012. For the first time, TV spending by deep-pocketed outside groups outstripped spending by the candidates themselves, hitting 55 percent compared with 38 percent in the last presidential election cycle, and diminishing candidates’ ability to control their own messages. A high proportion of that spending happened with zero public disclosure. Since 2004, 19 states have seen at least...

Secret Money Floods Judicial Elections

Unlimited, undisclosed spending is playing an ever-greater role in state supreme court races, undermining the fairness of the courts and putting judges at risk of conflicts of interest.

AP Photo/Wisconsin State Journal, M.P. King, Pool
John Paul Stevens called it right. Dissenting in 2010 from the Supreme Court’s notorious Citizens United ruling to overturn limits on big spending in campaigns, the now-retired Supreme Court justice warned that the decision’s toxic implications would extend beyond ordinary political contests to the elections that fill powerful state supreme court seats. Discomfiting figures from the latest round of state judicial races bear out that grim forecast. Of the 39 states that hold judicial elections, 27 feature supreme court races this November, and the money is flowing freely. The same seamy money game that defines races for political office post- Citizens United —unlimited spending by special interests and barrels of secret money—has also invaded contests for the courthouse. It is an alarming development. And it is getting steadily worse. So far in 2016, seven states—Arkansas, Idaho, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, Wisconsin, and West Virginia—have held a...