Nonprofits and other interest groups spent more than $11.7 million in 10 high-profile state supreme court elections in 2012 and 2013, with more than a third of the money coming from outside state lines.
Out-of-state influence likely helped decide races in North Carolina, Iowa and Mississippi, according to an investigation by The Center for Public Integrity.
Center researchers used state campaign-finance reports, federal tax records and Federal Communications Commission filings to track the spending. The bulk of the outside spending came from organizations based in Washington.
The states were chosen because of the visibility of the races and the significant level of non-candidate spending observed in the contests.
In the 10 state races the Center for Public Integrity analyzed, national political groups were active directly or indirectly in seven. Seventy-five percent of the outside money could be traced to the long-running battle between trial lawyers and business interests.
Trial lawyers helped carry the day in Florida, Louisiana and Oklahoma, while business groups, especially the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, got their way in North Carolina, Michigan, Ohio and Mississippi.
Here are the center’s findings:
No. 1 Florida: $3.3 million
Two conservative groups and the Florida Republican Party attempted to oust three justices in the Sunshine State last year.
The groups – Tallahassee-based Restore Justice and northern Virginia-based Americans for Prosperity – spent a pittance compared with the influx of cash from the state’s trial lawyers and a coalition of unions, who spent more than $3.2 million. The money was funneled through a group called Defend Justice from Politics.
The total was tops among interest groups that spent money on state supreme court elections last year.America Votes, a Washington-based, union-backed group, contributed $300,000 to Defend Justice, making it the single biggest donor. Nine Florida law firms each gave $100,000 or more.
Voters retained the three justices: R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince.
Restore Justice raised $75,000. An official for Americans for Prosperity, the organization tied to billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, estimates the group spent less than $100,000.
No. 2 North Carolina: $2.6 million
Independent groups accounted for at least $2.59 million in spending, a total that overwhelmed the public finance system, rendering it largely irrelevant. More than half the spending came from groups outside the state.
Justice Paul Newby eked out a win over his challenger, appellate court Judge Sam Ervin IV.
The top spender was the North Carolina Judicial Coalition, at $1.94 million. Its top patron was Justice for All NC, which received 68 percent of its money, or $1.2 million, from the Washington-based Republican State Leadership Committee. The Republican committee’s top donor was the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal Reform, at $3.5 million.
The Institute for Legal Reform, a major foil of trial lawyers, lobbies for legislation that would mandate lower damage awards in civil trials.
Also active was the Washington-based nonprofit Judicial Crisis Network, which gave $75,000 to pay for radio ads supporting Newby. The group doesn’t disclose its donors.
“The average voter doesn’t need to trace every dollar to figure out whether to vote for a candidate,” said Judicial Crisis Network’s chief counsel, Carrie Severino.
No. 3 Michigan: $1.6 million
In Michigan, the Judicial Crisis Network spent more than $1 million on a last-minute attack ad against Democratic Supreme Court candidate Bridget Mary McCormack, who won anyway.
The group’s spending was reported by a watchdog group, the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, which collected filings from local TV stations to calculate the spending.
Regulatory filings show that the Judicial Crisis Network has several ties to well-connected conservative political operatives. It shares office space in Washington with Grover Norquist’s anti-tax group, Americans for Tax Reform.
Gary Marx, the Judicial Crisis Network’s former president, is the executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, evangelical powerbroker Ralph Reed’s advocacy organization.
Treasurer Neil Corkery holds the same title for the National Organization for Marriage, the largest anti-gay marriage group in the country. The group spent at least $148,000 in Iowa’s state supreme court race last year.
No. 4 Ohio: $1.2 million
Partnership for Ohio’s Future, an affiliate of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, spent more than $1.1 million in a losing effort to help Republican Justice Robert Cupp win re-election.
The organization didn’t disclose its donors, but in past years the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been a major contributor, according to the watchdog group Ohio Public Action.
Tax records show the local chamber gave the group $500,000 in 2012, and tobacco giant Reynolds American Inc. reported giving $100,000 to the group last year.
No. 5 Iowa: $833,000
In Iowa, 57 percent of the money spent in a retention election for Justice David Wiggins came from groups backed primarily by out-of-state donors.
Conservative groups, including Colorado-based Focus on the Family, the Washington-based National Organization for Marriage and the Pennsylvania-based Patriot Voices, run by former presidential candidate Rick Santorum, spent $225,000 trying to replace Wiggins.
None of these groups disclose their donors.
In 2010, conservatives unseated three of Wiggins’ former colleagues after the state high court voted unanimously in favor of gay marriage.
Wiggins won, in large part because of $115,000 spent by another non-disclosing nonprofit, the gay-rights group Human Rights Campaign.
No. 6 Wisconsin: $819,000
Earlier this year, pro-business groups spent nearly $700,000 in the state supreme court race, helping incumbent Justice Patience Roggensack cruise to victory over challenger Ed Fallone.
State supreme court races were expensive affairs in recent years in Wisconsin, but this year’s contest was more subdued as liberal groups didn’t spend much to back Fallone.
The state arm of Club for Growth, an anti-tax group, spent at least $287,000 on TV ads supporting Roggensack’s bid, according to FCC records. The group isn’t required to disclose its donors.
The National Association of Realtors, based in Chicago, spent at least $206,000 supporting Roggensack via the organization’s state chapter.
No. 7 Mississippi: $638,000
Improve Mississippi, funded heavily by a state physicians’ political action committee, state business groups and the Washington-based American Tort Reform Association, reported spending $350,000 in support of Josiah Coleman in his supreme court race against Flip Phillips in a race that’s nonpartisan.
Coleman’s other backer, the northern Virginia-based Law Enforcement Alliance of America, didn’t disclose its donors or spending.
Coleman won with 58 percent of the vote, even though Phillips’ campaign raised more money.
The Law Enforcement Alliance of America spent at least $188,000, according to records that Memphis, Tenn., television stations filed with the Federal Communications Commission. The total doesn’t reflect amounts spent in smaller markets.
Several observers in Mississippi, including former state supreme court justices, think that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is supplying the money that’s behind the law enforcement group’s ads.
Neither the chamber nor the Law Enforcement Alliance of America responded to requests for comment.
No. 8 Louisiana: $561,000
Trial lawyers prevailed in Louisiana, where the Republican candidate they supported won the seat.
No. 9 Oklahoma: $160,000
Spending by trial lawyers in Oklahoma helped retain four justices.
No. 10 Montana: $42,000
In Montana, where a little money goes a long way, a group called the Montana Growth Network helped sway the course of that judicial race.