TV Ad Spending Reaches Nearly $14 Million in 2014 State Supreme Court Races

November 5, 2014

Contact: Seth Hoy,, 646-292-8369 or Laurie Kinney,, 202-588-9454

TV ad spending in state Supreme Court elections by outside groups, political parties, and candidates has surged to more than $13.8 million since January, surpassing the $12.2 million spent on TV advertising in the 2010 midterm elections, according to an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice and Justice at Stake of estimates provided by Kantar Media/CMAG.

The 2014 judicial elections delivered a new round of special interest money, attack ads, and partisan politics into America’s courtrooms, shattering several state records and increasing political pressure on state justices. For the first time, a powerful national political group, the Republican State Leadership Committee, systematically invested in Supreme Court and lower court contests across the country — an effort that was unsuccessful in almost all its targeted states, including North Carolina, Missouri, Tennessee, and Montana. 

Additionally, voters endorsed a ballot measure that would serve to head off contested judicial elections in Tennessee and rejected a Florida initiative that would have given the governor the power to prospectively appoint replacements for sitting justices before the end of his or her term.

Outside groups poured an estimated $4.9 million into TV ad buys to influence Supreme Court races in 2014. In 2010, interest groups spent $2.5 million on TV ads. When state political party spending is included, total non-candidate TV ad spending jumped to more than $8.2 million (or 59 percent of total spending) this year, compared to $6 million (or 49 percent of total spending) in 2010.

Leading the pack of outside groups in TV spending is the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), which purchased TV ads under its own name and also bankrolled massive advertising efforts by local groups in North Carolina and Tennessee.  Altogether, the RSLC purchased an estimated $720,000 in TV ads in Montana and Illinois and contributed over $1.4 million to local groups in Tennessee and North Carolina, which spent extensively on TV ads.  A runner-up was an Illinois group called Campaign for 2016, funded by plaintiffs’ lawyers in the state, which spent over $1.1 million on TV ads against incumbent Illinois Justice Lloyd Karmeier. Illinois saw the greatest outside group TV ad spending in 2014 at more than $1.7 million.  

The Michigan Republican Party, which spent an estimated $3.2 million on TV ads, was the top TV spender among political parties and also the overall top TV spender nationally. The only other political party spending in judicial elections documented in 2014 was from the Ohio Republican Party, which spent $100,000 on ads.  No Democratic Party TV spending was documented in any Supreme Court races.

“The flood of special interest money in judicial elections is forcing judges to campaign and fundraise like politicians,” said Alicia Bannon, Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. “We need to keep our courts fair and impartial and protect them from outside influences. This means requiring judges to step aside from cases when big dollars are flowing in from the lawyers or litigants appearing before them, and introducing public financing so judges don’t have to rely on special interests to get elected.”

“As more national players seek to bully and buy the courts, our constitutional right to a fair day in court is in jeopardy,” said JAS Executive Director Bert Brandenburg. “It’s time to insulate our judges from money and partisan politics with reasonable reforms, like well-designed merit selection systems to promote quality candidates while insulating their selection from big-money pressure.”

Republican State Leadership Committee Spends Millions

The RSLC, which launched its “Judicial Fairness Initiative” earlier this year to elect conservative judges and judicial candidates, poured $3.4 million into supreme and county court races in five states since January.  In addition to TV ads, its spending supported phone banking and direct mail, and the group was behind what was arguably the harshest attack ad of the cycle:  a spot accusing North Carolina’s Justice Robin Hudson of coddling child molesters, which attained national notoriety.

The RSLC saw largely unfavorable results after voters cast their ballots this year:

  • In Montana, the RSLC spent nearly $470,000 on TV ads, mailers, and other electioneering on behalf of Lawrence VanDyke, who was defeated by Justice Michael Wheat, state disclosures show.
  • The RSLC gave Justice for All NC a total of $1.3 million for the primary and general election, according to state disclosures. Justice for All NC spent an estimated $210,000 in TV advertising in support of candidate Mike Robinson, who was defeated by incumbent Justice Cheri Beasley. Justice for All NC also spent almost $700,000 during the primary on an attack ad against incumbent Justice Robin Hudson.  She defeated Superior Court Judge Eric Levinson on Election Day.  
  • The RSLC spent more than $200,000 on a direct mail effort in Tennessee opposing the retention of three Tennessee Supreme Court Justices, Gary Wade, Cornelia Clark and Sharon Lee, calling them too liberal for Tennessee and linking them to the Affordable Care Act. The RSLC also gave $140,000 to the Tennessee Forum, a group that aired ads accusing the three justices of being “liberal on crime.” Voters retained all three justices in August.
  • In the Cole County, Missouri circuit court race, prosecutor Brian Stumpe, backed by RSLC funding that reached nearly $300,000 according to state disclosure reports, failed to unseat Judge Pat Joyce.  The court’s jurisdiction includes challenges to the constitutionality of state laws and the language of ballot measures.  “Is there a negative backlash?  Clearly,” said Stumpe.
  • The RSLC spent over $960,000 on TV advertising and phone banking in support of Illinois Justice Lloyd Karmeier, who successfully sought retention to a new 10-year term, according to state disclosures.

Several States Set New TV Spending Records

In 2011-12, the first full election cycle since Citizens United, an explosion of independent spending helped fuel the costliest election cycle for TV spending in judicial election history. In 2014, more state records were set, according to an analysis of candidate fundraising and TV data from 2000-2014.

  • In Illinois, TV ad spending for and against the retention of Justice Karmeier hit $1.7 million, a record for retention elections in Illinois (which uses contested elections to fill vacant seats and retention election for sitting justices). Campaign for 2016, heavily supported by trial lawyers, spent over $1.1 million against his retention. Justice Karmeier’s 2004 election holds the state record for airtime in a contested election at $6.8 million.
  • In Tennessee, a record $1.5 million in TV spending was pumped into three Supreme Court retention races in which Justices Cornelia Clark, Sharon Lee, and Gary Wade retained their seats.
  • Total TV ad spending in a hard-fought Montana Supreme Court election rose to a record $330,000, with numerous groups, including the RSLC and Americans for Prosperity, contributing. (Estimates for TV ad spending in Montana are available only beginning in 2008.)
  • In North Carolina, where the legislature repealed a successful public financing program for judicial campaigns last year, candidate fundraising for four high court seats hit a record $3.8 million for the primary and general election.

Total estimated TV spending for the two-year 2013-14 election cycle was an estimated $14.8 million, falling short of the 2009-10 record of $16.8 million. Notably, two states with historically high spending did not have contested elections in 2013-14, Pennsylvania (which held retention elections for two justices in 2013) and Alabama (where no candidates were opposed in the general election).

Outside Groups Spend in More Races in 2014

Not only did spending by outside groups increase since 2010, outside spending also became more prevalent. In 2014, outside groups engaged in spending in every state where TV ads were aired in the general election, and in seven of nine states overall (counting primaries and elections held before November). In 2010, in comparison, only seven of the 13 states saw TV ads sponsored by outside groups.

National groups were major outside spenders in judicial races around the country.  In addition to the Republican State Leadership Committee, other national groups weighing into state judicial races in 2014 included Americans for Prosperity, the Center for Individual Freedom, and the Law Enforcement Alliance of America.

At the same time, judicial candidates with alleged connections to “special interests” were regularly attacked in TV ads this year. In Montana, Ohio, and Illinois, candidates were accused of being owned or influenced by special interests. An ad aired by Montanans for Liberty and Justice said candidate Lawrence VanDyke was “in the pocket of out of state special interests,” while incumbent Justice Michael Wheat aired an ad urging voters to “tell these corporations that neither your vote, nor my seat, are for sale.” Both VanDyke and Ohio Justice Judith French were targeted with graphically similar TV ads depicting photos of their faces tucked into businessmen’s cash-lined suit pockets.

Other State Judicial Election and Selection Votes:

Kansans voted to retain state Supreme Court Justices Eric Rosen and Lee Johnson for new six-year terms, after an eleventh-hour opposition drive that focused on their participation in a decision vacating death penalties for two convicted killers. The anti-retention effort spilled over into partisan politics and the Kansas governor’s race, where Governor Brownback criticized the court as “liberal” and said he would “appoint judges who will interpret the law, not rewrite it as they choose to see it.”

Tennesseans approved Amendment 2, to write into the state constitution an appointive-and-retention election system for choosing appellate judges, along with a new requirement for legislative confirmation of a governor’s picks. The proposal’s backers contended it would help insulate the courts from the politics and big spending of contested partisan elections.

Floridians defeated Amendment 3, a measure to empower a sitting governor to prospectively appoint justices at the end of his or her term in office. Supporters called it a needed fix for a lack of constitutional clarity on the question, while opponents called it a power play on behalf of the current governor.

2014 TV Ad Spending Totals:

Arkansas (May 20)

  • Winner(s): Robin Wynne*
  • Candidate Total - $44,210
  • Party Total - none documented
  • Group Total - $164,560
  • TOTAL - $208,770

*There were two other state Supreme Court races without TV spending

Idaho (May 20)

  • Winner(s): Joel Horton (I)*
  • Candidate Total - $23,060
  • Party Total - none documented
  • Group Total - none documented
  • TOTAL - $23,060

*There was one other state Supreme Court race without TV spending


  • Winner(s): Lloyd Karmeier (I)
  • Candidate Total - none documented
  • Party Total - none documented
  • Group Total - $1,714,210
  • TOTAL - $1,714,210


  • Winner(s): Richard Bernstein, David Viviano (I), and Brian Zahra (I)
  • Candidate Total - $1,952,740
  • Party Total - $3,188,890
  • Group Total - $423,450
  • TOTAL - $5,565,080


  • Winner(s): Mike Wheat(I)*
  • Candidate Total - $37,870
  • Party Total - none documented
  • Group Total - $291,280
  • TOTAL - $329,150

*There was one other state Supreme Court race without TV spending

North Carolina

  • Winner(s): Cheri Beasley (I), Sam Ervin, Robin Hudson (I), and Mark Martin (I)
  • Candidate Total - $1,929,360
  • Party Total - none documented
  • Group Total - $1,005,570
  • TOTAL - $2,934,930


  • Winner(s): Judith French (I) and Sharon Kennedy (I)
  • Candidate Total - $742,720
  • Party Total - $100,110
  • Group Total - $553,640
  • TOTAL - $1,396,470

Tennessee (August 7)

  • Winner(s): Cornelia Clark, Sharon Lee, and Gary Wade were retained
  • Candidate Total - $687,040
  • Party Total - none documented
  • Group Total - $779,890
  • TOTAL - $1,466,930


  • Winner(s): Jeff Brown (I)*
  • Candidate Total - $187,890
  • Party Total – none documented
  • Group Total - none documented
  • TOTAL - $187,890

*There were three other state Supreme Court races without TV spending

Total TV ad spending for general election only: $10,821,620
Total TV ad spending for 2014: $13,826,490

Spending estimates from Kantar Media/CMAG are based on captured satellite data in the nation’s largest media markets. CMAG’s calculations do not reflect ad agency commissions or the costs of producing advertisements, nor do they reflect the cost of ad buys on local cable channels. CMAG’s data editing process may take several months to complete, and as a result, estimated spending totals may change once the process is finished.

In upcoming weeks, this Justice at Stake-Brennan Center analysis will be supplemented by reports by other organizations exposing the role of money in American politics, which can be followed at #Money14.  In January 2015, many of these groups will hold an event around the fifth anniversary of the Citizens United decision featuring innovative research and their work together for a stronger democracy.