(RNN) - Businesses have taken over state courts - where 95 percent of all legal disputes are heard - and influence judges with massive campaign contributions, according to a report released Monday.
While money for state judgeship campaigns once came primarily from trial lawyers and labor unions, an overwhelming majority of donations now come from corporations and lobbyists. A 2011 report from the Brennan Center for Justice found three pro-business groups donated nearly 13 times as much as the entire labor movement during 2010 state judicial elections.
A study released Monday by the Center for American Progress said the rising amount of money spent in state elections has allowed companies to back prospective judges with pro-business records, creating a pattern of rulings in favor of cutting costs at the expense of giving Americans "a fair trial."
In 2010, candidates vying for positions in six states that also held elections in 1990 had raked in $5.7 million, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. In 1990, candidates in those same states only had $2.5 million to pull from.
"The groups that are spending money don't care, they just want the judge that will go their way," said Tom Perriello, president and chief executive officer of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
As part of the report, the Center compiled a list of more than 400 cases from 2000 to 2010 in the six states that had the biggest influx of money in judicial elections. The Center found judges in 71 percent of those cases ruled for corporations, indicating a correlation between campaign spending and favorable rulings for donors.
"The high courts that have seen the most campaign spending are much more likely to rule in favor of big businesses and against individuals who have been injured, scammed or subjected to discrimination," the report said.
Montana Supreme Court Justice James Nelson said money was "corrosive and distortive," in judicial elections at a discussion sponsored by the Center for American Progress on Monday.
"As long as I think our national philosophy and economy is dominated by the free-market concept… I don't think anything is sacrosanct," he said. "The best way to promote that philosophy is to control everything, and the best way to control everything is through money."
Influencing a judicial election isn't particularly hard if you've got the money to do it, former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz said on Monday.
Extra funding is particularly influential in judicial elections because judges are rarely ever "well-known," unlike the politicians who are frequently the focus of campaign funding questions. The issue is magnified by the fact that most campaign money goes towards advertisements.
"Judges are not known, so the opportunity there is to define a judge and [the judge doesn't] have enough money or funds to respond," Diaz said. "If they're being defined by one group, then it's easy to pick off a judge."
Diaz said political ads usually find the most inflammatory vote in a judge's record and blow the decision out of proportion. He recalled an ad that ran against him and pointed to his time as an appellate judge. The ad alleged Diaz had allowed a drug dealer, who had been convicted in a lower state court, to go free.
It ignored the fact that appellate courts exist to appeal decisions from lower courts, should a person be convicted after a faulty investigation or before finding additional evidence.
A 2002 study of voters and state judges found 9 in 10 voters and 8 in 10 state judges were concerned about special interest groups buying advertisements in an effort to shape state judicial elections.
Both Diaz and Nelson stressed the need for "principled" people to run for judicial positions, but acknowledged the influence of money kept many people out of the race.
"There are a lot of good lawyers out there who just don't want to get involved," Diaz said. "Why sully your reputation - potentially your family - knowing that your background is going be combed through just like any election? You certainly limit the pool."
In 2010, the Supreme Court decided the Citizens United case, which in part removed limits on corporate campaign contributions. The decision has been challenged a number of times, but the Supreme Court has upheld the ruling, arguing corporations spending money in politics doesn't cause corruption or the appearance of corruption.
On June 26, the court voted to strike down a 100-year-old Montana law that banned companies from contributing to political campaigns, citing the Citizens United decision.
Diaz and Nelson said the best way to fight the influx of money is by educating potential voters.
"Get the actual facts out before the public, not a bunch of sound bites, not a bunch of hocus pocus about corporate personhood," Nelson said. "These people [corporate interests and lobbyists] don't like transparency, they like doing their dirty work behind closed doors."
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