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Buying Time—2008

Analysis of judicial races earlier this year shows that interest group targeting and big money court-campaigns remain deeply entrenched, despite the fact that campaigns may not be flooded with excessive spending.

Septiembre 11, 2008

logoFor Immediate Release                                                      

Contacts: James Sample of the Brennan Center for Justice,917–355–9557
Charles W. Hall of Justice at Stake, 202–588–9454

 Television Advertising in State Supreme Court Elections

NEW YORK – As the fall 2008 judicial season kicks off, early data on TV advertising do not yet offer clear trends as to how much and where judicial campaigns will suffer from excessive special interest and partisan pressure.  But an analysis of races earlier this year shows that interest group targeting and big money court-campaigns remain deeply entrenched.

“Television advertising studies have proven to offer the best available window of comparison into how, and by whom, judicial races are financed across time, and across the country,” said James Sample, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York.

“Judicial politics often break late, so it’s not clear how many interest groups are cutting ads and writing checks right this minute,” said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of the Justice at Stake Campaign, a nonpartisan national partnership that works to preserve fair and impartial courts.




During the 2008 election season, the Brennan Center for Justice is releasing weekly, real-time reports on television advertising in state Supreme Court elections. The reports, to be released from September 11 through November 12, will analyze campaign advertising by candidates, political parties, and third-party groups.

This Week in Judicial Politics

Television advertising has heated up in Alabama, the state marked by some of the nation’s most expensive and nastiest Supreme Court elections. In just less than a week, the Judge Greg Shaw Committee spent close to $94,000 in campaign ads. Shaw, a Republican state appellate judge, is heavily out-advertising his Democratic opponent, District Judge Deborah Bell Paseur.

According to campaign finance reports, Shaw has many of the same business-based donors who have financed candidates in recent Alabama elections, suggesting that he has deep pockets to draw on for further campaign advertising. 

Shaw’s top five contributors include the Automobile Dealers Association of Alabama, Pro Business Pac, and the Alabama Retail Association, all of which have contributed heavily to Republican candidates in 2006, 2004, 2002 and 2000.

Paseur, who has received $20,000 from the state Democratic Party, has mainly reported individual contributions of $1,000 or less.

So far, ads by both candidates have been positive in tone, as is usually the case early in a campaign. Shaw’s “Alabama values” ad, which aired in six major markets the week of Aug. 30 to Sept. 5, can be accessed here.  Paseur’s “Amazing Grace” ad, which aired only in the Huntsville market, can be found here.

From 1993 to 2006, candidates raised a total of $54 million for Supreme Court races, the highest total in the nation. In July, Alabama State Bar President J. Mark White called for reforms to reduce the cost of Supreme Court elections, noting that more money is spent on court elections in Alabama than to provide legal assistance to the poor in civil cases.

2008 – The Year to Date

There was significant television advertising in four state primaries, but the total, $1.6 million, was less than the $3.5 million spent on  six 2006 primaries. To date, all primary advertising has been by candidates, not by outside groups—the same as in 2006.

Television spending spiked most sharply in Nevada, where three of four candidates vying for an open seat ran television ads totaling $821,756. In 2006, only two of eight candidates for three court seats ran television ads, totaling $142,000.

By contrast, a dramatic reduction in spending occurred in Washington state. After spending heavily in a failed attempt to unseat two Supreme Court justices in 2006, the building and real estate industries stayed out of this year’s primary. Total spending on all primary campaign activities fell from $2.1 million to about $200,000, according to the Seattle Times.

In West Virginia, $636,687 was spent in a May primary campaign in which Justice Elliott “Spike” Maynard was voted off the court. Maynard was photographed in the French Riviera with mining executive Donald Blankenship, who in 2004 spent more than $3 million to help elect West Virginia Justice Brent Benjamin.

In the spring, Wisconsin’s partisan and costly 2008 Supreme Court election campaign turned into a shameful race to the bottom with total spending in its five largest markets for the entire duration of the race estimated at $3.6 million.

The election was dominated by special interest groups that wrote checks to cover almost nine out of every ten dollars spent on television advertising (89%).  On top of exorbitant third-party spending, many of the ads aired were widely criticized.

Justice Michael Gableman, who unseated then-incumbent Justice Louis Butler, aired an ad attacking Butler that The Wisconsin Judicial Campaign Integrity Committee (WJCIC) described as an “offensive, race-baiting style reminiscent of the Willie Horton spot from the 1988 presidential race.” Meanwhile, an ad sponsored by the Greater Wisconsin Committee criticized Gableman’s handling of a number of child sexual assault cases, with the WJCIC calling the ad “completely useless,” as its claims made “were not substantiated or put into meaningful context.” 


The Fall Campaign


Twenty states will elect judges this fall. There are mixed signals about the likelihood of runaway spending on Supreme Court elections.

Incumbents in Michigan and Ohio, the scene of expensive elections in recent years, have heavy financial backing from business-based funders who have helped elect other Supreme Court justices in recent cycles, and they appear prepared to spend heavily on re-election.

According to campaign finance reports, Michigan Chief Justice Cliff Taylor already had broken the fund-raising record for a state Supreme Court candidate in early August, three months before the general election.

It is less clear that challengers in Michigan and Ohio can raise enough money to mount competitive campaigns, which could reduce spending on both sides.

Challenges are being mounted in several other states with a history of partisan elections and heavy campaign spending-including Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.

At the other end, at least three states-Georgia, Illinois, and Washington-that broke campaign spending records in recent elections have uncontested Supreme Court races in November.




The Brennan Center’s analyses of television advertising in state Supreme Court elections use data obtained from a commercial firm, TNS Media Intelligence/Campaign Media Analysis Group (“CMAG”), which records each ad via satellite.  CMAG provides information about the location, dates, frequency, and estimated costs of each ad, as well as storyboards. Cost estimates are refined over time and do not include the costs of design and production.  As a result, cost estimates substantially understate the actual cost of advertising.


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