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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Maybe it's time to update that old saying, if the facts are on your side, argue the facts.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

If the law is on your side, argue the law.

WERTHEIMER: If neither is on your side, make sure you were the one who helped elect the judge.

INSKEEP: Right now, special interests are spending millions of dollars in state Supreme Court elections. A new study documents an arms race among business groups, trial lawyers and unions - as NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON: So much money is pouring into state judicial races from outside groups that it's beginning to undermine public confidence in the courts.

Adam Skaggs works at the Brennan Center for Justice. He co-wrote the new study.

Mr. ADAM SKAGGS (Counsel, Brennan Center for Justice): What we've seen is an explosion in campaign spending in judicial elections over the past decade. Fundraising in judicial races doubled to $206 million from just $83 million in the '90s, from 1990 to 1999.

JOHNSON: And who's spending all that money? The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, trial lawyers and unions; groups that Skaggs calls super spenders, and they're drowning out small individual donors.

Mr. BERT BRANDENBURG (Executive Director, Justice at Stake): The joke is that a Supreme Court is a lot less expensive to try to buy than a state legislature.

JOHNSON: That's Bert Brandenburg, director of a group that advocates for reforms such as public financing of judicial elections.

Mr. BRANDENBURG: As long as we're asking for more judges to dial for dollars from the people who appear before them, then the more we are asking judges to act like Huey Long on the campaign trail, and then turn around and act like Solomon in the courtroom. That's a lot of pressure for anyone. And as a matter of human nature, the more we push judges to do that, the harder it's going to be to get the justice that we want out of our courts.

JOHNSON: Good government groups aren't the only ones sounding an alarm. State Supreme Court judges are elected in more than 20 states. They usually have to run for re-election every six to 10 years. And most state judges can campaign like any other kind of candidate.

Two years ago, Louis Butler was running for the Wisconsin Supreme Court. He'd been appointed to fill a partial term by the state's governor, and he liked it so much that he campaigned for a full term.

Butler described what happened next.

Mr. LOUIS BUTLER (Former State Justice, Supreme Court): Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce decided at that point, that okay, we've had this court for all these years, we never had to worry about how the court voted. We get this new guy on the court, he's gotta go.

JOHNSON: And go he did, with the help of ads like this one that tried to portray Butler, a former public defender, as soft on crime.

(Soundbite of a political ad)

Unidentified Woman: When our children go to school, they need to be safe. In our homes and neighborhoods, we need to be safe. Our cops, sheriffs and district attorneys are on the front line, protecting us. And you know what? Our judges need to know they also must protect us.

JOHNSON: Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce say they were only protecting themselves when they spent more than $1 million on TV ads against Butler. James Buchen, an executive at Wisconsin Manufacturers. He says the court, under Justice Butler, had ruled to expand punitive damage awards and malpractice claims under a fragile four to three majority.

Mr. JAMES BUCHEN (Vice President, Government Relations/Membership, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce): The ideological balance on the court was what was at stake there. And so I think it's why people were as focused as they were on that election. And there were as many groups and as much money spent supporting his candidacy, as there was supporting the opponent.

JOHNSON: Butler became the first incumbent in Wisconsin in more than 40 years to lose his Supreme Court seat. After Butler left the court, Buchen says, the tenor shifted. The pro-business candidate won, and the court majority began voting for business again. In all, nearly $9 million was spent on that race.

Since then, Wisconsin has opened up state Supreme Court elections to public financing. But the new system still allows outside groups to spend money on TV ads, as long as they don't coordinate with judge candidates. And the system won't really be put to the test until next year. That's when another justice in the four-person pro-business majority is scheduled to retire.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

WERTHEIMER: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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