As campaigns for state supreme court seats become more expensive and more partisan, the fear of being portrayed as “soft on crime” is leading courts to rule more often for prosecutors and against criminal defendants, contends the Center for American Progress study. A new report from the organization examines the impact on the criminal justice system of the explosion in judicial campaign cash and the growing use of political attack ads in state supreme court elections, which have increased pressure on elected judges to appear “tough on crime.” The center studied high courts in Illinois, Mississippi, Washington, Georgia, Wisconsin, Nevada, and West Virginia. It looked at 4,684 rulings in criminal cases starting five years before a given state's first $3 million high court election and ending five years after that election.
The findings reveal a clear trend: As campaign cash increased, courts began to rule more often in favor of prosecutors and against criminal defendants. The 2004 Illinois Supreme Court race broke judicial campaign spending records. As Illinois voters were bombarded with attack ads featuring violent criminals, the high court ruled in favor of the prosecution in 69 percent of its criminal cases—an 18 percent increase over the previous year. Mississippi's high court saw its first $3 million election in 2000 and nasty political attack ads that same year. When the next judicial election rolled around two years later, Mississippi's justices ruled against criminal defendants in 90 percent of the high court's criminal cases—a 20 percent increase from 2000. These results suggest that as judges are more likely to rule against criminal defendants as elections approach, state supreme courts are more likely to rule for the state as the amount of money in high court elections increases.