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2012 Judicial Campaign Spending Exceeds $13 Million, Surpasses 2010 Spending

Television ad spending for state Supreme Court races surpassed $13.5 million this week — more than was spent in all of 2010 — as the judicial campaign season enters what is traditionally its highest-spending period, according to data released by the Brennan Center for Justice and Justice at Stake.

October 26, 2012

Polit­ical Parties and Inde­pend­ent Groups Top Spend­ers

Contact: Erik Opsal, Bren­nan Center for Justice, erik.opsal@nyu.edu, 646–292–8356
Eeva Moore, Justice at Stake, emoore@justiceats­take.org, 202–588–9462

Tele­vi­sion ad spend­ing for state Supreme Court races surpassed $13.5 million this week — more than was spent in all of 2010 — as the judi­cial campaign season enters what is tradi­tion­ally its highest-spend­ing period, accord­ing to data released by the Bren­nan Center for Justice and Justice at Stake. Polit­ical parties and outside groups have domin­ated TV spend­ing this elec­tion season, and are respons­ible for nearly 70% of the approx­im­ately $8.9 million that has been spent on TV ads since the start of Septem­ber, accord­ing to data provided by TNS Media Intel­li­gence/CMAG.

“As spend­ing on judi­cial races contin­ues to increase, judges face added pres­sure to be account­able to special interests instead of the law and the consti­tu­tion,” said Alicia Bannon, coun­sel in the Bren­nan Center’s Demo­cracy Program.

“In more and more states, outside groups are taking over judi­cial elec­tions by vastly outspend­ing the judges them­selves,” said Bert Branden­burg, exec­ut­ive director of Justice at Stake.

National TV spend­ing data for judi­cial races, as well as links to ads, are avail­able at “Judi­cial Elec­tions 2012,” a web page jointly hosted by the Bren­nan Center for Justice and Justice at Stake. Addi­tional analysis is also avail­able at the Bren­nan Center’s “Buying Time 2012” web page.

As Judi­cial Races Enter Home Stretch, TV Spend­ing Surpasses 2010 Levels

TV ad spend­ing topped $13.5 million this week, surpass­ing the $12.1 million spent in 2010’s elec­tion season. Michigan contin­ues to lead the nation in spend­ing, with approx­im­ately $3.5 million spent on TV ads to date. This past week saw more than $3 million in spend­ing over­all, led by Michigan (approx­im­ately $1.2 million) and North Caro­lina (approx­im­ately $700,000).

Tele­vi­sion spend­ing is likely to further surge in the lead-up to Novem­ber 6. In 2010, nearly 43% of total TV spend­ing in judi­cial elec­tions occurred in the week before Elec­tion Day. If this trend contin­ues, spend­ing in this year’s elec­tion season could top $20 million.

Non-Candid­ate Groups Are Biggest Spend­ers

Polit­ical parties and inde­pend­ent groups are domin­at­ing TV spend­ing in this year’s state supreme court races. The four biggest spend­ers this general elec­tion season are all non-candid­ate groups: the Michigan Demo­cratic State Cent­ral Commit­tee ($2,640,120); Flor­ida group Defend Justice from Polit­ics ($1,396,070); the Michigan Repub­lican Party ($885,280); and the North Caro­lina Judi­cial Coali­tion ($803,310).

In Michigan, polit­ical parties are respons­ible for all TV ad spend­ing to date – total­ing more than $3.5 million. Ads by both parties have gone negat­ive, includ­ing a Demo­cratic ad accus­ing candid­ates of siding with special interests, and a Repub­lican ad accus­ing candid­ates of being soft on crime and protect­ing crim­in­als. In a report this year, a task force of Michigan judges and citizens criti­cized the role of polit­ical parties in Michigan’s Supreme Court elec­tions, arguing that the system “result[s] in the appear­ance of a politi­cized court with justices pres­sured to be loyal to party ideo­logy rather than the rule of law.”  Although Michigan’s consti­tu­tion prohib­its a judi­cial candid­ate’s polit­ical party affil­i­ation from appear­ing on the ballot, parties play an active role in nomin­at­ing candid­ates and campaign­ing on their behalf. The task force proposed that Michigan elim­in­ate partisan selec­tion proced­ures in favor of open primar­ies.

Flor­id­a’s reten­tion race has also attrac­ted the atten­tion of outside groups both support­ing and oppos­ing the reten­tion of three justices. In Septem­ber, Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity, a group linked to indus­tri­al­ists Charles and David Koch, released an ad criti­ciz­ing the three justices for a judi­cial decision reject­ing a ballot initi­at­ive oppos­ing the Afford­able Care Act on the basis that it had mislead­ing language. More recently, pro-reten­tion group Defend Justice From Polit­ics has spent an estim­ated $1.4 million on a TV ad urging voters to support the justices and reject the “polit­ical power grab” by oppon­ents to reten­tion.  

North Caro­lina super PAC North Caro­lina Judi­cial Coali­tion has spent approx­im­ately $800,000 on TV ads in support of incum­bent Justice Paul Newby, dwarf­ing the $80,000 in ad spend­ing by Justice Newby himself and the $50,000 in ad spend­ing by his oppon­ent, court of appeals judge Samuel James Ervin IV. North Caro­lina is one of the few states with public finan­cing for judi­cial elec­tions, but a recent court ruling bars the state from provid­ing addi­tional funds to Judge Ervin based on super PAC spend­ing in support of Justice Newby. The role of inde­pend­ent spend­ing has itself become a campaign issue in North Caro­lin­a’s race. In a recent ad, Judge Ervin accuses “inde­pend­ent groups” of trying to “buy a seat” on the Supreme Court and asks, “What do they expect in return?”

TV Meth­od­o­logy

All data on ad airings and spend­ing on ads are calcu­lated and prepared by TNS Media Intel­li­gence/CMAG, which captures satel­lite data in that 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. The costs repor­ted here there­fore under­state actual expendit­ures.


Justice at Stake is a nonpar­tisan, nonprofit campaign work­ing to keep Amer­ica’s courts fair and impar­tial. Justice at Stake and its 50-plus state and national part­ners educate the public, and work for reforms to keep polit­ics and special interests out of the courtroom —so judges can protect our Consti­tu­tion, our rights and the Rule of Law. For more about Justice at Stake, go to www.justiceats­take.org, or www.gavel­grab.org.

The Bren­nan Center for Justice at New York Univer­sity School of Law is a non-partisan public policy and law insti­tute that focuses on funda­mental issues of demo­cracy and justice.  Its work ranges from voting rights to campaign finance reform, from racial justice in crim­inal law to pres­id­en­tial power in the fight against terror­ism. A singu­lar insti­tu­tion — part think tank, part public interest law firm, part advocacy group — the Bren­nan Center combines schol­ar­ship, legis­lat­ive and legal advocacy, and commu­nic­a­tions to win mean­ing­ful, meas­ur­able change in the public sector.  For more inform­a­tion about the Bren­nan Center, go to www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org.