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FRIDAY, MAY 18, 2007

Supreme Court races most costly in Alabama

By Phillip Rawls
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — Alabama had the nation's most expensive state Supreme Court races in 2006 and its residents were bombarded by more TV ads from court candidates than viewers in any other state, according to a report released Thursday.

In Alabama, one of only seven states that pick judges in partisan elections, 15 candidates for state Supreme Court seats reported raising $13.4 million. Texas, about five times more populous than Alabama, came in a distant second at $3.5 million. Alabama's 2006 figure broke the state's old record of $12.3 million set in 2000.

To put the fundraising into perspective, the state appropriation to operate the Supreme Court this year is $8.5 million — about two-thirds of what was raised to win seats on the court.

"Those are barn-burner numbers," said Jesse Rutledge, spokesman for the Justice at Stake Campaign. The group prepared the national report on campaign fundraising with the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law and the National Institute for Money in State Politics.

Rutledge said part of the reason Alabama set the record was that five of the nine seats on the Supreme Court were up for election in 2006 and spending in all races was up.

But the primary cause was the high-budget race for chief justice that generated about two-thirds of the money, he said.

In a review of TV advertising purchases, the Justice at Stake Campaign figured there were 17,830 ads for or against candidates in Alabama, which was the most of any state in a single year. The number about equaled the total number of Supreme Court TV ads run in Alabama in the 2000, 2002 and 2004 elections combined.

The Justice at Stake Campaign is a nonpartisan organization supported by a variety of citizen, business and legal groups representing both plaintiff and defense lawyers. The Washington-based group has tracked spending in state Supreme Court races nationwide since 1993 and has criticized the growing political intensity of judicial races, where businesses and lawyers make large donations to winning candidates and then have cases before them.

The Justice at Stake Campaign had reported earlier this year that Alabama's race for chief justice was the second most expensive in American history, with the three candidates raising $8.2 million. Illinois still holds the record with a 2004 race where the candidates generated $9.3 million.

The new report adds in $5.2 million raised by the candidates for four other Supreme Court seats, raising the total to $13.4 million. The total includes contributions and loans to the candidates' campaigns as well as in-kind contributions, such as polling and other services paid for by others.

Since 1993, Supreme Court candidates in Alabama have raised $54 million largely because of repeated battles between business groups and plaintiff lawyers for influence on the court. Texas is second at $30 million because of some of same battle lines, according to Justice at Stake.

"Justice at Stake's report shows how in too many states, judicial elections are becoming political prizefights where partisans and special interests seek to install judges who will answer to them instead of the law and Constitution," former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said in a statement released with the report.

Most states don't hold contested Supreme Court races. Eleven states, including Alabama, had either partisan or non-partisan contested races in 2006. Alabama's race for chief justice, between Republicans Drayton Nabers and Tom Parker in the GOP primary and then Nabers and Democrat Sue Bell Cobb, who won the November election, was singled out in Thursday's report as an example of candidates using their ads to attack their opponents — once a rarity in judicial races.

"Alabama has become a national case study in the new politics of judicial elections," said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake Campaign. "Around the country, other states are pursuing reforms to keep campaign cash out of the courtroom. If Alabama were to pass meaningful reforms, the rest of the country would take notice."

Cobb, the new chief justice and the only Democrat on the Supreme Court, has advocated nonpartisan elections to try to reduce spending. The Alabama State Bar also has called for appointments of judges, with voters deciding whether to retain them at the end of their six-year terms. Neither idea has found favor in the soon-to-be-completed session of the Legislature.

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