Today Ballotpedia released a groundbreaking report on the Washington State Supreme Court’s decision making and candidate campaign contributions.
Washington is one of 13 states that select their state supreme court justices through elections without party labels. In Washington, state supreme court justices serve six-year terms, and three seats are regularly up every two years.
Of the 17 Washington Supreme Court justice general election races since 2013, eight were contested. Ballotpedia recorded all candidate contributions for the winning and, if relevant, losing candidates for each race. Ballotpedia also recorded all independent expenditures made for these races. In all, the data includes over 11,000 contributions. Of those, Ballotpedia coded over 1,500 significant contributions.
The research project counted contributions as significant if they met one of the following criteria:
- they were from donors whose single largest contribution was $1,000 or more;
- they were made by the same donor who gave a large number of contributions over multiple election cycles; or
- they were also found in the parties and amici data set.
The court case outcomes data set for this research project included over 6,000 parties and amici curiae in over 1,751 court cases from 2013 through 2022. Ballotpedia coded over 2,000 parties and amici.
For both the campaign finance data and the court case outcomes data, Ballotpedia coded progressive or conservative political ideological leanings based on self-description, additional contributions by the donor to certain PACs or candidates, political contributions to the donor by certain PACs or public figures, political activity, and public issue position statements.
Ballotpedia also coded both sets of data according to the same set of 28 sector or policy categories.
Note: This study does not seek to establish any sort of causal relationship between the campaign finance and court ruling outcomes data sets. Rather, the two data sets were compiled and analyzed in this study because they both give contextual information to the public about the political inputs and government effects of Washington Supreme Court justice selection. This study did not seek to evaluate the quality of state supreme court opinions from a legal standpoint. It did not control for the quality, balance, or legal validity of any of the arguments or briefs contained in the data.
Court case outcomes analysis
Among the sample of plaintiffs, petitioners, appellants, defendants, and respondents that were coded as progressive, 72% received Washington State Supreme Court decisions that were favorable, while 28% received decisions that were unfavorable. Among the sample of parties classified as conservative, 15% received favorable rulings, and 85% received unfavorable rulings.
Ballotpedia also coded a sample of amici curiae. Among the amici classified as progressive, 75% saw decisions benefiting the party or parties in the case that the arguments in their briefs supported, and 25% saw decisions in the opposing direction. Among the amici classified as conservative, 13% saw decisions benefiting the party or parties their briefs supported, and 87% saw decisions in the opposing direction.
Campaign finance analysis
Among donors Ballotpedia was able to code as either progressive or conservative, 99% of significant contributions toward the campaigns of winning candidates (i.e., justices elected to the Washington Supreme Court) were from progressive sources. Within the same set of significant campaign contributions, 1% of contributions to winning candidates were from conservative sources.
Among donors coded as either progressive or conservative, 97% of significant contributions to losing Washington Supreme Court candidates were from conservative sources, while 3% were from progressive sources.
The most common donor categories of significant contributions to winning candidates were
- Law – 36%
- Labor – 13.9%
- Political/Politician – 8.4%
The most common donor categories of significant contributions to losing candidates
- Housing/development – 23.4%
- Political/Politician – 19.1%
- Business – 14.2%
There were several sectors or policy categories from which 100% of identified significant contributions went either to winning candidates or to losing candidates.
Categories with 100% of significant contributions to winning candidates:
- Criminal defense
- Native American tribe
- Personal injury
Categories with 100% of significant contributions to losing candidates:
- Second Amendment
Click here to read the full report or see the data.