(CN) - Spending by special-interest groups in judicial races hit a record high last year, accounting for 29 percent of all money spent, a new Brennan Center report found.
The report, titled "Bankrolling the Bench: The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2013-14", found that multimillion-dollar judicial races are now common across the country.
"Over the last decade and a half, state Supreme Court elections have been transformed into politicized and costly contests, dominated by special interests seeking to shape courts to their liking," the report says. "The most recent 2013-14 cycle was no different, as the pressure of big money - increasingly reflected in outside spending by special-interest groups - threatened the promise of equal justice for all."
While federal judges are appointed, 38 states conduct elections for their state supreme courts, and almost 90 percent of sitting state appeals court judges must conduct regular re-election campaigns.
Of 23 contested state appellate seats this cycle, 21 were won by the candidate whose campaign raised the most money, placing pressure on candidates to raise funds.
Last cycle, spending on state supreme court elections in 19 states exceeded $34.5 million - $10.1 million of which came from special interest groups, including political action committees and social welfare organizations, the report says.
Outside spending by political parties accounted for 11 percent of all spending, bringing the noncandidate spending total to 40 percent, just a hair short of the 2011-12 record of 42 percent. The report attributes this slight decline solely to the unusually high number of unopposed re-election races this cycle.
Most of the contributing groups are not required to publicly disclose from whom they received their money.
The Brennan Center also found that the biggest individual donors tend to be lawyers or lobbyists, many of whom can be expected to have interests before the court.
"The 2013-14 election cycle reflects pressing challenges for all those who believe we need to keep our state courts fair, impartial, and equitable for all: record levels of influence by outside spenders, increased political pressure from legislatures and governors, and a growing economy of influence that threatens to tip the scales of justice toward the wealthy and powerful and away from ordinary citizens," the report states.
The Brennan Center called for strongerly and clearer rules dictating when judges should recuse themselves if they have received campaign money from involved parties.
"While outside spending in judicial elections has skyrocketed in recent years, only six states have recusal rules addressing independent expenditures - creating uncertainty for judges and parties alike," the report states. "Most states also allow judges to decide their own recusal motions - creating obvious conflicts and discouraging litigants from filing motions in the first place."