In a season of rough campaign attack ads, the one aimed at a North Carolina judge was among the roughest. “Justice Robin Hudson sided with the predators,” viewers were told. “Justice Robin Hudson — not tough on child molesters, not fair to victims.” Hudson, a Democrat on the North Carolina Supreme Court, was one of the state-level judges targeted this year by the Republican State Leadership Committee, which spent $4 million nationwide on an effort to tilt state courts in a conservative direction. Though Republicans took control of the Senate and many governors mansions in the midterm election, the committee’s courthouse campaigns fell short of unseating Hudson and judges it targeted in Montana, Tennessee and Missouri. Judicial campaigns once were typically sedate affairs, little noticed outside of bar association dinners, but that is changing rapidly under a new wave of campaign spending driven by outside political groups and unlimited donations. Court campaigns in several states set spending records, according to a study that counted about $14 million in television advertising in state Supreme Court races — about $2 million more than in 2010.
“Special-interest groups are seeing that with a small amount of money, relative to what they spend on a governor’s race, they can have a big impact,” said Barbara Pariente, a Supreme Court justice in Florida who in 2012 fended off the state Republican Party and Americans for Prosperity, an outside organization funded largely by the billionaire conservative Koch brothers. “Even if they don’t succeed in removing a justice, they believe they have succeeded in sending a message: When you make a ruling against public opinion, you do it at your peril,” she said.
Taking the lead are conservative organizations often looking for judges who will make business-friendly decisions or support their social causes. The big money on the Democratic side has traditionally come from trial lawyers, who see a vested interest in protecting judges sympathetic to victims suing for negligence.