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Court race most expensive in nation
Cobb, Nabers raised state record $7.3 million in chief justice campaign

By Phillip Rawls
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — Candidates in the race for chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court raised $7.3 million in direct contributions, making it the most expensive court race in America in 2006.

It also was the most expensive court race ever in Alabama, a state famous for big-budget judicial campaigns fueled by business interests, which generally back Republican candidates, and plaintiff lawyers, who tend to support Democrats.

The final campaign finance reports brought renewed calls for an end to partisan elections of judges in Alabama, one of seven states that use that method to pick members on their highest court.

"People are just disgusted with the election of Supreme Court justices right now," retired Alabama Supreme Court Justice Gorman Houston, who leads an Alabama State Bar task force seeking an end to partisan elections, said Thursday

Candidates in the race for chief justice had to file their year-end campaign finance reports Wednesday. Republican incumbent Drayton Nabers, who lost the general election, reported raising $4.1 million since campaign fundraising began in June 2005. Democrat Sue Bell Cobb, who was elected, reported taking in $2.6 million. And Nabers' Republican primary opponent, Justice Tom Parker, reported $641,088.

That totals $7.3 million in direct contributions. Counting their in-kind contributions, such as groups throwing receptions and purchasing advertising on their behalf, the total rises to $7.8 million.

"Any way you slice it, that's the most expensive court race of 2006," said Jesse Rutledge, spokesman for the Justice at Stake Campaign, a Washington-based group that tracks spending in judicial races nationwide.

While the figure is tops for 2006, it is not an all-time record. That still belongs to an Illinois Supreme Court race in 2004, where the candidates raised $9.3 million, Rutledge said.

Prior to the Illinois race, the national record had been the $4.9 million raised in Alabama's 2000 race for chief justice.

"In a state that keeps setting and resetting records, this is another example of how fundraising is a vital part of getting elected to the bench in Alabama," Rutledge said.

Since the early 1990s, Alabama's Supreme Court races have been million-dollar affairs as business interests and plaintiff lawyers sought to elect justices sympathetic to their side on liability or tort law cases.

The 2006 race was somewhat different because Parker, a Republican, drew some plaintiff lawyer support, and Cobb, Alabama's first female chief justice and the only Democrat on the nine-member court, got some business support.

No matter where the money came from, Alabama's big spending increased "the perception that campaign contributions carry influence in the courtroom," Rutledge said.

In an interview Thursday, Cobb called the cost of the campaign "obscene" and predicted it "will be a springboard to change judicial elections." She said a switch to nonpartisan Supreme Court elections would tone down the negative nature of the campaigns and make them less costly.

"We've got to be about increasing people's trust in the courts, not decreasing it," she said.

Nabers said Wednesday the current system of electing judges has produced "a fine judiciary" at both the appellate and trial courts. "I do not advocate any change," he said. The GOP now holds 18 of the 19 seats on Alabama's three appeals courts, and Republican leaders have opposed any change.

The Alabama State Bar is pushing for a merit selection system, where a committee would make recommendations to the governor, who would select one.

Under the both the Bar's plan and Cobb's proposal, voters would decide at the end of a six-year term whether to retain or remove a Supreme Court justice.

Houston said big-budget campaigns funded by law firms or businesses that have cases before the courts are causing people to question the fairness of the judiciary. "We've got to do something," he said.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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