“Justice Robin Hudson: not tough on child molesters, not fair to victims,” intoned an ominous ad meant to smear a North Carolina judge up for reelection next week. Hudson is one of many judges who have found themselves up against surprisingly well-financed campaigns and the TV spots that come with them. In the past decade or so, the amount of money thrown into judicial campaigns has increased tenfold—and apparently, so has the vitriol.
Political donors have realized that a donation to a state supreme court campaign brings higher yields than a donation to a state legislator's campaign: It’s more expensive to change who's passing the laws—often more than 100 people—than to change the handful of individuals who interpret them. When the campaign-finance levees broke after the 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, money rushed in to judicial elections—and that money may be subtly changing the way judges deliberate.
Because judicial elections aren’t nearly as visible as congressional ones, it’s little known that 90 percent of state judges are up for election at one point or another, and that 38 states have judicial elections of some kind. Alexis de Tocqueville saw the problems with this setup early on, predicting that judicial elections would bring “disastrous results.” The concept of campaign promises seems logically inconsistent in the legal world, where decisions are theoretically made on a case-by-case basis, as it were.