It wasn’t until just a few years ago that judicial retention races started to make front-page headlines.
In 2010, Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride faced, what was at that time, a rare occurrence for a judge running for retention: a coordinated and well-funded effort seeking to unseat him.
His race, which included ads from a political action committee accusing him of being soft on crime and having an anti-business position, is believed to be the second most expensive retention race in history.
While Kilbride and several other chief justices throughout the nation survived challenges to their retention bids, three Iowa Supreme Court justices lost their retention elections that same year after opponents of the court’s same-sex marriage ruling campaigned to oust the trio.
After the 2010 races, several judicial watchdog and good government groups, as well as judges themselves, expressed concern that the introduction of money and outside groups in retention elections would continue to plague the judiciary.
The trend appears to have continued in this election cycle with anti-retention campaigns and expensive television advertising, but Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice reports that all 25 high court justices up for retention this year in 13 states won voter approval in Tuesday’s election.
Illinois Supreme Court Justice Rita Garman secured far higher than the required 60 percent voter approval to be retained to another 10-year term earlier this week and she didn’t face any opposition.
On a local level, all four Madison County judges up for retention this year won their elections, despite a grassroots campaign aimed at ousting them from the bench.
Chief Judge Ann Callis received 68 percent, followed by Judge Dave Hylla at 65 percent. Judges Barbara Crowder and John Knight both were retained with 63 percent “yes” votes.
The campaign committees of the four judges reported nearly $250,000 in donations, transfers and loans between July 1 and Oct. 31. All four ran television ads and campaigned quite heavily for not having an actual opponent, in hopes of countering the efforts of Citizens for Judicial Integrity (CFJI).
CFJI urged voters to not to retain the four judges and specifically pointed to last year’s controversy over campaign contributions Crowder’s committee accepted, but later returned, from area asbestos attorneys and law firms.
Crowder said Wednesday that she is happy the election is over and even more pleased that she received the voters’ support.
“Anytime your name is on a ballot, you are concerned,” Crowder said, adding that aside from CFJI’s anti-retention campaign, the race in general “definitely made me concerned.”
Callis was unavailable for comment and messages left for Hylla and Knight were not immediately returned.
Alicia Bannon, counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, said the amount of money and involvement of outside groups in retention races should be concerning to everyone.
“Judicial elections this year were characterized by attack ads, record-breaking spending and outsized influence by special interests,” she said. “As judges face increased pressure to act like politicians, the integrity of our courts is at risk.”
Bannon said her group, a non-partisan public policy and law institute in New York, tracked the nation’s Supreme Court races this year and saw many of the same things that happened in the 2010 cycle.
The main difference, she said, was that “This time around, the voters pushed back against some of the pressures from special interest groups.”
Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake, said in a statement that “The arms race around our courts is growing worse, but voters are seeing through campaigns to make courts more political and less impartial.”
Although Garman and justices in Florida won their retention elections by a fairly large margin, Bannon said Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins received about 54.5 percent “yes” votes, a percentage she said is a lot closer than retention races historically have been in Iowa.
The two groups pointed to disclosure filings to say that more than $1.5 million was raised by the campaign committees of the Florida and Iowa justices who faced opposition to their retention bids. Retention opponents in the two states spent about $60,000.
“It’s terribly disappointing when judges have to raise big money from attorneys to defend against partisan attacks,” Brandenburg said.
CFJI spokesman Phil Chapman told The Record earlier this week that although it wasn’t able to get enough voters on board with its message, “We feel our campaign did impact the election.”
“Previously, the judges received 70 percent of the vote,” he said. “During this election cycle, they received less.”