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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.