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. Our analysis finds that the 2019–20 election cycle was the most expensive ever (adjusted for inflation). In fact, no other cycle comes close to the nearly $100 million that big donors and interest groups spent to influence the composition of state supreme courts in 2019–20.
This unparalleled spending speaks to the power and influence of state supreme courts, which often fly below the public’s radar. While voters were at the polls on Election Day in 2020, for example, the Missouri Supreme Court announced that it would not hear Johnson & Johnson’s appeal of a $2 billion verdict against it in a products liability suit. Massive stakes like these, for both business interests and trial lawyers, are what fueled some of the first high-cost judicial races two decades ago.