Campaigning Judges: A Growth Industry

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Each candidate has raised more than $1 million, appealed to voters through TV ads and benefited from campaigns by outside interest groups. Sound like your average congressional race? Maybe, but this one is actually the contest between two judges running for a seat on the Ohio Supreme Court.

While the attention of most voters is focused on the key races for the Senate and the House, campaigning for state and local judgeships has increasingly become part of the modern, big-money political world. Spending on Supreme Court campaigns in the 38 states where such judges are elected jumped 61% between 1998 and 2000, according to the nonprofit group Justice at Stake, and is on track for another big increase this year. Outside interests such as the Chamber of Commerce, pushing a nationwide campaign to cap jury awards, as well as trial lawyers and labor unions, are pouring money in.

One of the nastiest free-for-alls is in Ohio, where Republican Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton and Democratic Cuyahoga County judge Janet Burnside are locked in a close battle for Stratton's seat. On Stratton's side are doctors who feel she is more likely to keep malpractice awards low. The physicians have been passing out mock "prescription pads" in their offices advising patients to vote for her. On the other side, Citizens for an Independent Court, a union-and lawyer-backed political action committee, has attacked Stratton with an ad that contrasts men laughing in a limousine — depicted as "their side"--with a family at a picnic table and a welder at work — described as "our side." The most brazen of the ads, run by a group calling itself Competition Ohio but bankrolled by AT&T, accuses local phone provider SBC Ameritech of doubling rates and taking away consumer choice and suggests that a Stratton victory would mean lower phone bills.

Both candidates have disavowed the ads. But the influx of money to judicial campaigns helps create an impression that justice can be bought. In two national polls over the past year, 76% of voters said they believe that judges' impartiality is affected by campaign contributions, and 26% of judges polled agreed. North Carolina did something about it: a law providing public financing for judicial elections was signed this fall. But in other states, judges will have to keep spending.