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Buying Time—Special Interests and Supreme Court Elections

With only six weeks to go before Election Day, special interest groups have been conspicuously absent from television advertising campaigns in state supreme court elections.

September 24, 2008

logoFor Immediate Release                                                     

Contacts: James Sample, Brennan Center for Justice, 212–992–8648
Charles W. Hall, Justice at Stake, 202–588–9454

Special Interests Conspicuously Absent from Supreme Court Elections

New York, NY – With only six weeks to go before Election Day, special interest groups have been conspicuously absent from television advertising campaigns in state supreme court elections. Nationwide, no interest group has run an independent television advertisement since May, either in support of or in opposition to a candidate for state supreme court.

The lack, so far, of independent television ads is particularly evident in Alabama, where one interest group had spent close to $1 million on television advertising by this time in 2006.

If past behavior is any indication, however, interest group involvement may spike as Election Day approaches. In 2006, for example, interest groups spent almost $3.4 million, or three quarters of their total television advertising spending for the entire election cycle, in the last six weeks before the election. Also, as the general election in Wisconsin approached this past April, special interest groups flooded the airwaves with more than $3.2 million worth of television advertising.

“There is a direct correlation between special interest groups remaining on the sidelines, and the notable civility of the ongoing campaigns. It would be surprising if that continued, but the development is a positive one thus far,” said James Sample, counsel at the Brennan Center.

Nevertheless, owing in significant part to the contentious early-season campaign in Wisconsin, total spending on television advertising is surpassing amounts at this time in 2006. Already, candidates and interest groups have spent a total of almost $5.9 million on television advertising nationwide, compared to only $4.5 million spent by candidates, interest groups, and political parties by the third week of September in 2006.

Spending sharply increased in the past week as well. During the week of September 13, candidates spent $316,070 on television advertising, compared with $178,617 the week before.

Some of the spending increase occurred in Louisiana, where state Supreme Court elections will be held Oct. 4. Ads by incumbent Kitty Kimball and challenger Greg Guidry stress their credentials and philosophy. An ad by challenger Jeff Hughes attacks Kimball’s ethics.

The ads, which are available through the Brennan Center for Justice’s website, were paid for by the campaigns, and not by outside groups.

“As the election draws closer, this year’s court campaigns are approaching their moment of truth: Is interest group money waiting around the corner, ready to pour in?” said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake, a nonpartisan national partnership that works to protect courts from special interests and partisan agendas. “This year’s topsy-turvy national politics, and a variety of in-state political developments, makes interest group activity harder to predict.”

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.

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.