Is Your Judge for Sale? Dark Money Groups Pour Millions into Judicial Races to Reshape Courts

October 30, 2014


Andy Kroll

senior reporter for Mother Jones magazine. His latest investigation is "Is Your Judge for Sale?"

With the 2014 midterm elections just days away, we look at how anonymous donors are reshaping judicial races by pouring millions of dollars in "dark money" into races. Some donors see giving to the campaigns of judicial candidates as a way to get more influence, for less money than bankrolling legislative campaigns. A new investigation by Mother Jones magazine is headlined "Is Your Judge for Sale?: Thanks to Karl Rove and Citizens United, judicial elections have been overtaken by secretive interest groups, nasty ads, and the constant hustle for campaign cash." We speak to Andy Kroll, senior reporter for Mother Jones.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to the 2014 midterm elections, which take place Tuesday, and the increasingly outsized role played by groups that don’t disclose their donors. A new investigation zeroes in on this year’s judicial races, which have drawn unprecedented attention from dark-money donors that seek more influence, for less money, than bankrolling legislative campaigns.

AMY GOODMAN: The story is headlined "Is Your Judge for Sale?: Thanks to Karl Rove and Citizens United, judicial elections have been overtaken by secretive interest groups, nasty ads, and the constant hustle for campaign cash." We’re joined by its author, Andy Kroll, senior reporter for Mother Jones magazine.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Andy. You only have a few minutes. Lay out what you found.

ANDY KROLL: Well, what we’ve seen is that judicial elections have become another playground for the same kind of business interests and huge spenders and anonymous donors that we’re seeing in presidential races and congressional races up and down the ticket. And our judicial elections used to be a more sleepy corner of American politics, and obviously the dynamic is different, if we’re electing the arbiters of the law. But times have changed, and Citizens United has really begun to change the landscape in this place.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And could you explain, Andy Kroll, why these judicial races are so important?

ANDY KROLL: Well, there’s a lot at stake, obviously. I mean, these Supreme Court justices and other state-level justices decide judgments against business interests. They have a role in social issues like marriage equality. And as large forces from corporate America, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for instance, have gotten more involved, they have tried to tilt the courts in a way that are more pro-business to try to avoid these multi-hundred-million-dollar or billion-dollar judgments that can be handed down against businesses around the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Andy Kroll, talk about the role of Karl Rove.

ANDY KROLL: Karl Rove is, you know, really one of the pioneers, if you will, when it comes to judicial elections in Texas. In the late ’80s and ’90s, Rove helped flip the Texas Supreme Court from being a traditionally Democratic bench to a fervently Republican one. Rove was also sort of the mind behind the so-called tort reform effort, this effort saying that plaintiffs were sort of out of control, the hot-coffee incident, which has become more of a myth, really, than reality. Rove helped create that model, show how business interests could flip a Supreme Court in Texas. It was exported to Alabama some years later and then has since become a playbook around the country.

AMY GOODMAN: What most shocked you in your reporting, if you can give us a few quick examples of the role in money in judicial races?

ANDY KROLL: Sure. One example in 2004 in Illinois that sticks out, the insurance company State Farm is hit with a more than a billion-dollar judgment. And then, in the years that follow, the company and its allies, its tort reform, again, allies, you know, allegedly—it appeared to have vetted, picked out a candidate for a Illinois Supreme Court race, and funded to the tune of millions of dollars this candidate, got him elected. And then, when State Farm’s appeal of this billion-dollar judgment gets to the Supreme Court, this justice casts the vote overturning that incredibly big judgment.

Another finding that really stood out was how we are seeing—potentially seeing the use of soft-on-crime attack ads in judicial races, I mean, and how—I mean, this is a common bludgeon against candidates in races, even when the business interests are the main players—soft on crime, weak on the death penalty. And what we’ve seen, and what Justice—Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has written about, is that this is perhaps having an effect on judges in states around the country who are more inclined to, say, overturn jury ruling, like in a state like Alabama, and approve the death penalty, and less inclined to overturn a death penalty judgment. So judges being—thinking about, you know, "They’re going to be weak on crime, so I’m going to be tougher with death penalty."

AMY GOODMAN: Andy Kroll, we have to leave it there, but we’re going to link to your piece. Andy Kroll is senior reporter for Mother Jones. "Is Your Judge for Sale?" is his piece.

I’ll be speaking in Oslo, Norway, on Saturday. Check our website at for our special election coverage Tuesday night.

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