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Barrage of Ads Hits Tennessee Airwaves in Judicial Retention Race: Americans for Prosperity Launches Radio Ad

A significant new barrage of campaign ads hit Tennessee airwaves this week targeting three state Supreme Court justices up for retention. The politically-charged ads calls the impartiality of Tennessee’s court into question.

July 23, 2014

A signi­fic­ant new barrage of polit­ic­ally-charged campaign ads hit Tennessee airwaves this week target­ing three state Supreme Court justices up for reten­tion. Among the out-of-state groups spend­ing money to unseat the justices is Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity, a Koch broth­ers-linked dark money group that also spent money to influ­ence state Supreme Court races in North Caro­lina and Flor­ida in 2012. Other groups seek­ing to influ­ence Tenness­ee’s reten­tion elec­tion include the Repub­lican State Lead­er­ship Commit­tee, which distrib­uted fliers, and the State Govern­ment Lead­er­ship Found­a­tion.

The state is seeing a surge of ads both for and against Justices Gary Wade, Corne­lia Clark and Sharon Lee as the August 7 reten­tion elec­tion approaches. Early voting began July 18. While much of the advert­ising spend­ing is likely to remain undoc­u­mented until the next state disclos­ure dead­line at the end of July, public FCC files show spend­ing on tele­vi­sion ad contracts contin­ues to rise, and has crossed the $400,000 threshold.      

The ads include:

  • A radio ad sponsored by Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity, criti­ciz­ing the justices for appoint­ing a  “liberal” Attor­ney General who did not oppose Obama­care.   
  • A TV ad sponsored by Tennesseans for Fair Courts, a pro-reten­tion group, disput­ing claims made in ads oppos­ing the justices. 
  • A TV ad sponsored by the Tennessee Forum, a conser­vat­ive Tennessee group, claim­ing the justices are “liberal on crime” and “threaten your freedoms.” It urges voters to “replace the liberal Supreme Court.” The group said these ads are part of statewide campaign that will air through the elec­tion.
  • A TV ad high­light­ing the justices’ records, saying they upheld “nearly 90 percent of death sentences,” and urging view­ers to vote in favor of their reten­tion.
  • A TV ad from the State Govern­ment Lead­er­ship Found­a­tion, a part­ner group of the Repub­lican State Lead­er­ship Commit­tee, criti­ciz­ing the three justices for being “liberal on the Obama agenda.” 
  • A TV ad in favor of Justice Gary Wade, describ­ing him as focused on work, family and faith.
  • A TV ad sponsored by Keep Tennessee Courts Fair (the coordin­ated campaign to retain justices Connie Clark, Sharon Lee and Gary Wade), in which retired Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Mickey Barker says “polit­ics has no place in our courts.” 

“The contin­ued flood of money into judi­cial elec­tions from all sides is already a threat to impar­tial justice.  But if AFP has decided to spend the kind of money in a judi­cial race that it has spent in other contests around the coun­try, this could trans­form judi­cial polit­ics in the United States,” noted Bert Branden­burg, exec­ut­ive director of Justice at Stake, which has been monit­or­ing money and polit­ics in this year’s judi­cial elec­tions. “More judges are feel­ing trapped in a system that is persuad­ing many people that justice is for sale.”

“The ads in Tennessee are just the latest in a disturb­ing trend of outside groups attempt­ing to influ­ence who sits on our courts,” said Alicia Bannon, Coun­sel at the Bren­nan Center for Justice. “People need to feel that judges are account­able to the law, not special interest groups pour­ing money into reten­tion elec­tions. Ads that politi­cize judges’ records on the bench under­mine the inde­pend­ence of our courts.”

Since 2000, Justice at Stake, the Bren­nan Center for Justice and the National Insti­tute on Money in State Polit­ics have docu­mented spend­ing in judi­cial elec­tions in the New Polit­ics of Judi­cial Elec­tions series (click for the latest report, The New Polit­ics of Judi­cial Elec­tions 2011–12: How New Waves of Special Interest Spend­ing Raised the Stakes for Fair Courts.) No fundrais­ing or advert­ising has been previ­ously docu­mented in Tennessee Supreme Court elec­tions in the New Polit­ics reports. As noted in the latest New Polit­ics report, fundrais­ing and spend­ing in reten­tion elec­tions are widely considered to be a recent phenomenon.