Judicial “Foot Soldiers” to the Wealthy and Powerful Remake Courts for Their Own Narrow Interests

March 15, 2021

The first chapter in our “Justice at Stake” series set the table for our discussion of the many special interest groups dedicated to shaping our state and federal courts. You met the culprits – the big money funders, the partisan hacks, and the foot soldiers to the wealthy and powerful. We also introduced the heroes, those trying to push back against a rising tide of attacks on the integrity of our courts: the intellectuals, the detectives, and the citizens’ brigade.

Today we would like to turn your attention to the foot soldiers. These are the state-based groups that often spring up just a few months before a judicial election, sporting all-American names like Iowans for Freedom, Ohioans for a Healthy Economy, or For the Sake of the Kids. Look behind the apple-pie facades and you’ll often find well-funded business and conservative groups that work together to influence the makeup of elected state judiciaries and, therefore, the direction of state law. Many of these shadowy groups are notorious for refusing to disclose their funding sources and are often responsible for twisted TV attack ads in judicial elections.

States with elected judiciaries witnessed the work for these groups beginning in 2000. But in 2010, Iowa was one of the first states in the nation to be on the receiving end of a foot soldier campaign in judicial retention elections when extreme-right religious groups successfully ousted three accomplished Supreme Court justices under the false flag “Iowans for Freedom.” Led by Bob Vander Plaats, President of The Family Leader, the group raised and spent nearly a million dollars on deceptive advertising, most of it money from groups outside of Iowa.

Despite several subsequent attempts over the past 10 years by Vander Plaats and his foot soldiers to replicate their 2010 manipulation, Iowans have been much the wiser … so far. But it would be a serious miscalculation to think our Iowa courts won’t again come under attack by big money foot soldiers as these groups continue their efforts in states throughout the nation. According to a 2019 report from the Brennan Center for Justice, a non-partisan policy institute, more than a half billion dollars has been spent on state judicial campaigns and retention elections since 2000.

Iowans living on the eastern edge of the state had a front-row seat this past November to what could easily be a “coming attraction” to Iowa in future elections. Across the border in Illinois, a group calling itself Citizens for Judicial Fairness was anything but fair in spending $2.2 million on TV ads attacking state Supreme Court Justice Thomas Kilbride. Despite winning more than 55% of the vote, Kilbride did not reach the magic 60% threshold for retention in Illinois and became the first Supreme Court justice to lose a retention election in the state’s history.

Of course there are foot soldier groups supporting left-leaning interests, as well. At the state level, these groups have tended to be less prominent and formed as a reaction to conservative and business groups, but at the national level, they remain heavily interested in federal courts.

Regardless, our concerns are the same: We reject any attempt to further politicize our courts, whether from the left or right, because we believe advocating for fair and impartial courts does not mean you always get the policy outcomes that you want. It means that judges will follow the law and do what it requires in each case. The alternative – justices beholden to ideological or financial interests – will obliterate the bedrock on which our judicial system is built.

Next time, a look behind the curtain at those who issue the marching orders to the foot soldiers – the big money funders.

Your Iowa Citizens Brigade for Fair Courts,
Justice Not Politics