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Wealthy powerbrokers. Special interest groups. Millions of dollars pouring in to elect conservatives or liberals.

It sounds like a typical election-year contest for Congress or a state legislature, but it's actually a high-stakes battle for institutions that were once considered above politics: state supreme courts. Political groups view control of the high courts as essential to either defending or thwarting state laws. And they are more and more willing to spend big to gain the advantage.

So far in the current election cycle, a record $14 million in independent money has been spent on television advertisements for state supreme court seats, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School. That represents about half of all the money spent on the races, including the amount spent by the candidates themselves.

The final tally, which will not be known until after Election Day, is sure to be much higher and will probably shatter the previous outside spending record of $13.5 million, set in the 2011-12 election cycle.

"State supreme court elections have become increasingly high-cost and politicized," said Alicia Bannon, senior counsel at the Brennan Center. "Special interests have been putting a lot of money into those races, trying to shape who sits on the courts and ultimately the decisions the courts are making."

Not including uncontested races, some 52 seats in 27 states are in play Nov. 8, according to the Brennan Center's tally.

The U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 decision in the Citizens United case helped accelerate outside spending on judicial campaigns, the type of spending that is not supposed to be done in coordination with the candidates themselves.

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