In 2019–20, state Supreme Court elections attracted more money — including more spending by special interests — than any judicial election cycle in history, posing a serious threat to the appearance and reality of justice across the country.
Thirty-eight states use elections to choose the justices who sit on their highest courts, which typically have the final word in interpreting state law. Over the past two decades, the Brennan Center has tracked and documented more than $500 million in spending in these races.
This unparalleled spending speaks to the power and influence of state supreme courts, which often fly below the public's radar. The current political moment only heightens the stakes. In 2020 alone, state supreme courts ruled on everything from ballot access and challenges to election results to governors' emergency orders concerning the Covid-19 pandemic. Looking ahead, state courts are playing a crucial role in the ongoing redistricting cycle, including resolving disputes about racial discrimination and partisan gerrymandering and even drawing electoral maps in some states.
States have a wide range of tools to mitigate the harms documented in this report, including eliminating Supreme Court elections or limiting justices to a lengthy single term in office, providing judicial candidates with public financing, strengthening disclosure rules, and adopting recusal and ethics reforms. The 2019–20 cycle underscores that the challenges posed by modern supreme court elections are not going away — and that the need for action is urgent.