Pennsylvania Supreme Court elections consistently rank at or near the top for special-interest spending, a national study found, undermining public confidence in the legal system.

The study, released Monday by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School and two other public-interest organizations, said the decade-long battle over lawsuit reform between business interests and plaintiffs' lawyers was responsible for the sharp spike in spending.

Judicial campaigns featuring slickly produced television advertising, political consultants, and big-money fund-raising have come more and more to resemble political campaigns, with interest groups not only spending millions of dollars but also prodding judges to take positions on issues, said the authors of the study.

"It has gotten to the point that these judicial elections cannot be distinguished from political races," said Adam Skaggs of the Brennan Center. "While the public accepts that politicians represent particular constituencies, judges are not supposed to represent anyone."

The report found that from 2000 to 2009, fund-raising by candidates for state Supreme Court seats across the country had more than doubled from the previous decade, from $83.3 million to $207 million.

In that same period, candidates in Pennsylvania raised around $20 million, second only to Alabama, where spending on Supreme Court elections was more than $40 million, the result of an early and ongoing battle between trial lawyers and business groups.

But in the 2007 and 2008 Supreme Court election cycle, Pennsylvania far outpaced other states. Total spending in the state during that period was $10.3 million, the study said. The second-highest-ranking state was Wisconsin, where spending by candidates and others reached $8.5 million, followed by Alabama at $5.4 million.

"This is not a record we should be proud of," said Lynn A. Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, an advocacy group pushing to replace the current system of judicial elections with appointed judges. "Think of yourself in a court wondering whether one of the lawyers made a contribution to one of the judges. That is not what one should be focusing on when one comes before a court."

There are 22 states in which candidates for Supreme Court seats compete in elections, including Pennsylvania. Sixteen states have uncontested retention elections for judges after initial appointments. And in a dozen states, including New Jersey and Delaware, judges are appointed.

Both the Philadelphia and state bar associations have endorsed the idea of an appointed judiciary, but efforts to enact legislation changing the system have been bottled up for decades in the state legislature. The Pennsylvania Bar Association first passed a resolution endorsing so-called merit selection of judges in 1948.

Former bar association president Clifford Haines said one reason the initiative has failed to pass was that no one had ever been able to show that the system of electing justices produced a compromised result.

"Vague arguments about how things appear without proof of that fact is a hard argument to make," he said.

Last year's Supreme Court election in Pennsylvania for one open seat featured candid declarations from both parties that because of the Supreme Court's role in helping to decide redistricting disputes, the election would have huge political impact.

Joan Orie Melvin, a Republican from Western Pennsylvania, defeated Jack Panella, a Democrat from Northampton County, in an election costing upwards of $5 million.

The report released Monday was preceded with a statement from former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor decrying judicial electioneering and the need for judges to raise money from special interests, often lawyers who appear before them in court.

"Whether or not these contributions actually tilt the scales of justice, three out of every four Americans believe that campaign contributions affect courtroom decision," O'Connor said.

By far the most high-profile Supreme Court election of the last decade involved the 2004 campaign of lawyer Brent Benjamin for a seat on the West Virginia Supreme Court. During the campaign, West Virginia coal executive Don Blankenship spent $3 million to get Benjamin elected, much of it on attack ads directed at Benjamin's opponent.

Benjamin won election and cast the deciding vote in Blankenship's favor in a $50 million commercial dispute that had been appealed to the West Virginia Supreme Court.

The U.S. Supreme Court threw out that decision last year and ordered Benjamin to recuse himself, saying effectively that the process had been rigged against Blankenship's opponent.

In addition to the Brennan Center, the other groups involved in the preparation of the study are the National Institute on Money in State Politics and the Justice at Stake Campaign. Both groups track money in politics and advocate for policies that limit the influence of special interests.