Nonpartisan groups interested in money spent in judicial elections says the 2014 Supreme Court race in which dark money helped elect Justice Robin Wynne to the Arkansas Supreme Court over Tim Cullen was the first since 2000 in which outside money went into TV ads.

The finding is in a new report, Bankrolling the Bench: The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2013-14. It’s from the Brennan Center for Justice, Justice at Stake, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.


It says the Law Enforcement Alliance of America — which it says may have ties to the NRA — spent $165,000 on TV ads that attacked Cullen for his representation, on appeal, of a defendant in a child porn case. At the time, Cullen’s campaign — relying on TV ad records — claimed some $400,000 had been spent against Cullen. Said a release on the new report.

“As special interest groups continue to pump money into judicial races, Americans will rightfully question whether courtroom decisions are being influenced by campaign cash,” said Alicia Bannon, senior counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice and co-author of Bankrolling the Bench. “Fifteen years of data makes clear that high-cost and politicized judicial elections are not going away. States are long overdue in rethinking how they select judges and in adopting common sense reforms such as public financing and stronger rules regulating when judges must step aside from cases. Without real policy change, fair and impartial justice is at risk.”


“The hard numbers make it clear: when judges have to run for election, there is a risk that the concerns of ordinary people will take a back seat to the special interests and politicians who are trying to reshape courts to fit their agendas,” said Scott Greytak, Justice at Stake Policy Counsel and Research Analyst and the lead author of the report. ”

Nationally, the report said $34.5 million was spent on state Supreme Court races in 19 states, with outside interests accounting for almost 30 percent of the spending — 40 percent counting political party spending. The report says the spending was spurred by the Citizens United decision that opened the door to corporate spending on political races. Criminal justice themes accounted for 56 percent of TV ads. The release notes that had found the ads misleading. Wynne disclaimed responsibility, but never renounced the notion that criminal defendants were entitled to vigorous legal defenses.

UPDATE: Tim Cullen got in touch and sent along copies of TV ad buys and other documentation of more than $360,000 in ads purchased on Arkansas TV stations by the dark money group. The ad purchases don’t include production costs on the ad, thus the estimate of $400,000 in spending.