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Big Political Money Now Floods Judges' Races, Too

Four years after the Citizens United decision, out-of-state cash is flowing down to state races
Big Political Money Now Floods Judges' Races, Too
Illustration by 731

Every eight years, Tennessee’s state judges go before voters and ask to keep their jobs. Based on a system adopted in Missouri decades ago, Tennessee’s approach was designed to limit partisanship in the judiciary by letting the people ratify appointments made by the state’s governor. Usually, these elections are sleepy affairs. Not this year.

In the weeks leading up to the Aug. 7 election, outside groups known for spending to influence presidential and congressional elections have been buying television and radio ads targeting three state supreme court justices. The state chapter of Americans for Prosperity, the conservative group backed by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, announced on July 22 that it was “launching a major new effort to educate the public on the liberal records” of the three justices, all Democratic appointees, using radio ads and direct mail. The State Government Leadership Foundation, a national group affiliated with the Republican State Leadership Committee, has singled out Chief Justice Gary Wade, branding him “liberal on crime, liberal on the Obama agenda.” A group supporting Wade and his fellow justices, Sharon Lee and Cornelia Clark, has replied with ads reminding voters the bench “affirmed 90 percent of death sentences.” Longtime observers have been taken aback. “This is a first for our state,” says Tennessee’s former Chief Justice William Barker, a Republican who recorded a TV ad supporting the justices.