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Vast Majority of Voters Fear Campaign Cash Skews Judges’ Decisions

As this poll makes clear, Americans are worried that our fair courts are at risk.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A new poll commissioned by the Brennan Center for Justice and Justice at Stake finds that an overwhelming number of voters believe campaign donations and other special interest spending on judicial elections have an influence on a judge’s decision on the bench. The findings were released today at a National Press Club event highlighting a new report by the groups, The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2011-12: How New Waves of Special Interest Spending Raised the Stakes for Fair Courts.

“As this poll makes clear, Americans are worried that our fair courts are at risk,” said Alicia Bannon, counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “We need stricter rules for when judges have to step aside from cases, so that judges aren’t hearing cases involving donors who spent large sums getting them elected. We also need stronger disclosure laws so the public knows who is spending money trying to shape our courts.”

“These numbers are the highest we’ve seen in years of polling on this question,” said Bert Brandenburg, Executive Director of Justice at Stake. “Almost 9 in 10 Americans believe that campaign cash is affecting courtroom decisions. They’re worried that justice is for sale.”

The poll asked about campaign donations made directly to judges’ campaigns as well as about “independent spending,” in which outside groups spend their own money on TV ads and other election materials for or against a judicial candidate. A full 87 percent of voters said they believed both kinds of spending have either “some” or “a great deal” of influence on judges’ decisions.

Notably, voters’ concern about independent spending suggests that they do not view this type of spending as any less harmful than money given directly to a judge’s campaign. Independent spending on judicial races by special interest groups hit a record high of $15.4 million in 2011-12, according to The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2011-12 report.

Voters also say that when one party in a court case has either donated directly to a judge’s campaign or spent significantly on election materials designed to help elect the judge, the judge should step aside. A whopping 92 percent of voters expressed this view.

Polling was conducted by 20/20 Insight LLC, which surveyed a representative sample of 1200 registered voters over a period of three days, October 22-24. The margin of error was 2.8%.

Read the polling results here.

Read The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2011-12 here.

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