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Most expensive race in 2006
Alabama’s chief justice election could beat national record for cost

By M.J. Ellington· (334) 262-1104

MONTGOMERY — The judge who will become the first female chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court in January said she gets calls from reporters in other states, but not about her gender.

They call about the money, about the cost of the campaign, she said.

Together incoming Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb, a Democrat, and her opponent Drayton Nabers, a Republican and the outgoing chief justice, spent about $7 million in the race for the high court’s top seat.

Add in the $300,000 that current Supreme Court Associate Justice Tom Parker spent in his Republican Party primary defeat by Nabers and the amount exceeds $7 million.

The final accounting is due in January.

‘‘Without question, that race is the most expensive judicial race in the country in 2006. No other race was even close,” said Jessie Rutledge, director of Justice at Stake, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., that tracks judicial races and their cost. ‘‘It may be the most expensive in history. We’re just waiting on campaign totals to see.”

Rutledge said there are two primary reasons that Alabama judicial races cost so much money. The state’s campaign laws do not limit the amount of money that individuals contribute to candidates, and the PAC-to-PAC transfers from one political action committee to another allowed here make it hard to track the sources of large donations.

He said Illinois’ 2004 chief justice race in which the two candidates spent $9.3 million now holds the distinction as the most expensive judicial race ever run.

Rutledge said the group advocates for nonpartisan judicial elections.

‘‘It is crystal clear that nonpartisan elections are less expensive than partisan races where the party label appears on the ballot,” Rutledge said. ‘‘Where the party label appears on the ballot, the effect is a two- or three-fold increase in expense at least.”

Not only do candidates have less time to explain the campaign issues to voters in partisan races, Rutledge said, the partisan process affects how voters feel about the races.

‘‘It plays a role in the public perception that a justice can be bought and public support for the judiciary is weakened,” Rutledge said.

Competition is good

Not all groups agree with the Justice at Stake perspective.

Bill Canary, president and chief executive officer of the Business Council of Alabama, said his organization supports partisan elections for state and federal elections, and makes its political contributions primarily to pro-business candidates. He said BCA, a private membership organization of thousands of Alabama businesses, believes the current process gives voters a better choice in candidates.

‘‘This is a state that enjoys competition,” Canary said. ‘‘Nonpartisan elections disenfranchise candidates with no labels. It’s like going to the grocery store and trying to decide which cans to buy when there are no labels.”

Canary pointed to high voter turnout in Alabama and intensity of elections that he believes partisan contests promote.

‘‘Personally, I believe when the public has a chance to make choices among parties, the process works better,’‘ Canary said.

Gerald Johnson is a retired Auburn University at Montgomery political science professor who runs Alabama Education Association’s Capital Survey Research Center polling operation in Montgomery.

Johnson said that in various polls since 1996, state voters consistently said they want balanced courts that are ‘‘not all male, not all female, not all black, not all white and not all Republican or all Democrat.”

Voters see races for courts differently than for the Legislature, Johnson said.

‘‘They accept the politics of the Legislature, but they do not see courts based on Republican justice or Democratic justice.”

So how does Johnson explain the state’s heavily Republican makeup? Chief Justice-elect Cobb is the only Democrat on the nine-member Supreme Court. No Democrats are among the 10 judges that make up the civil and criminal appeals courts.

Voting for party

Johnson said in races where voters do not know how the candidates stand on the issues, they vote with the best clue they have, party identification.

‘‘The vote is based not on how they feel about the party in power in their state but the party in power in Washington,” Johnson said.

‘‘Cobb succeeded because voters got to know her and the issues through her campaign,” Johnson said. ‘‘That takes money in partisan elections.”

Johnson said Alabama has a ‘‘systemic problem” in the way it elects judges with little opportunity for voters to learn what the candidates think.

Historically, when Democrats held all the political power in the state, that party had no motivation for nonpartisan judicial elections and Republicans wanted them, Johnson said. Now that Republicans have more power, the tables have turned with more Democrats favoring nonpartisan races and more Republicans disapproving.

‘‘The real issue is an electoral issue,” Johnson said. In elections that promote party label over information about issues, Johnson said, ‘‘voters are denied the opportunity to make informed decisions about candidates.”

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