Special Interest Groups Promote Partisan Agendas In Battle to Politicize Courts

February 11, 2021

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover. Folk wisdom that has never been more true when tracking special interest groups who work to influence our courts. When you scan the titles, you’ll likely find them pretty tame, but once you crack the spine, you’ll discover a lot of content about politicizing our courts.

“Best sellers” on the national level include groups like the Judicial Crisis Network, the Judicial Fairness Initiative, and Demand Justice, or state-level groups like Ohioans for a Healthy Economy, For the Sake of the Kids, or North Carolina Families First. And who can forget that local “thriller” Iowa for Freedom, the “cover” used by Bob Vander Plaats and The Family Leader to funnel millions of dollars from outside far-right groups into campaigns to defeat the retention of several Iowa Supreme Court justices over the past decade.

The common denominator, regardless of what end of the political spectrum these groups represent, is the belief that we should choose and evaluate judges based on politics rather than merit and a fair-minded interpretation of the law. Many are also willing to collect and spend millions in dark money on attack ads and misinformation campaigns to achieve political and partisan outcomes. As a political operative from one group stated in a Kansas forum on judicial elections, “It’s a whole lot cheaper to buy a state supreme court justice than a state legislator, and you’re going to get a LOT more influence with a supreme court justice.”

From time to time in a new series we’ve titled Justice at Stake (a term we’ve borrowed from a now-inactive national fair courts group), we’ll examine these organizations and the intent behind the lofty-sounding titles and those who are bankrolling their efforts – especially at the state level.

And while you likely know at least a few of the stories, we hope to help distinguish the main characters — the good, the bad, and the ugly. We’ll guide you through the big plot points and help make sense of a burgeoning genre of big money funders, partisan players, and foot soldiers to the wealthy and powerful, alongside those trying to push back against this tide of partisan tricks: the intellectuals, the detectives, and the citizens brigade.

For those of you wondering where Justice Not Politics fits into this story, we’re happy to say that organizations like ours are working to protect courts from political influence. Generally state-based groups like JNP, Kansans for Fair Courts, Justice Not Politics Alaska and others understand and expect some decisions that our supporters might disagree with because that’s what happens when fair-minded judges follow the law. More important, we recognize that advocating for fair courts means that we can all count on impartial treatment in a courtroom no matter who is on the other side or which political party is in power.

Stay tuned. The first chapter is coming soon. We’ll introduce the partisan powerhouses … protagonists with a plan to politicize every courtroom in America.

The Justice Not Politics Team