On Election Day 2010, for the first time in a generation, three state supreme court justices were swept out of office in a retention election when voters expressed anger over a single controversial decision on same-sex marriage. The special-interest campaign—which poured nearly a million dollars into Iowa to unseat the justices—was the logical culmination of a decade of rising efforts to inject more partisan politics into our courts of law.

Outside money continued its hostile takeover of judicial elections. More than ever, a small number of super spenders played a dominant role in influencing who sits on state supreme courts. Much of this influence was exercised secretly.

But Election Day was only the beginning. Campaign leaders in Iowa issued a blunt warning to judges around the country that they could be next. For the next half year, legislatures across the country unleashed a ferocious round of attacks against impartial justice.

More judges were threatened with impeachment than at any time in memory. Merit selection, an appointment system that has historically kept special-interest money out of high court selection in two dozen states, faced unprecedented assault. Public financing for court elections, one of the signature reforms to protect elected courts in the last decade, was repealed in one state and faced severe funding threats in two others.

The story of the 2009-10 elections, and their aftermath in state legislatures in 2011, reveals a coalescing national campaign that seeks to intimidate America’s state judges into becoming accountable to money and ideologies instead of the constitution and the law. In its full context, the most recent election cycle poses some of the gravest threats yet to fair and impartial justice in America.

“Non-candidate groups poured in nearly 30% of all money spent in 2009-10—far higher than four years earlier.”

A total of $38.4 million was spent on state high court elections in 2009-10, slightly less than the last non-Presidential election cycle, in 2005-06. However, $16.8 million was spent on television advertising—making 2009-10 the costliest non-presidential election cycle for TV spending in judicial elections. Outside groups, which have no accountability to the candidates, continued their attempts to take over state high court elections, pouring in nearly 30 percent of all money spent—far higher than four years earlier. Two states, Arkansas and Iowa, set fundraising or spending records in 2010, following a decade in which 20 of 22 states with competitive supreme court elections shattered previous fundraising marks.

Laced among these numbers were several worrying trends:

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