Skip Navigation

Buying Time—Spending Rockets Before Elections

Candidates, interest groups, and political parties combined to spend $19,861,269 on television advertisements in state Supreme Court elections nationwide this year, announced two national watchdog groups.

November 14, 2008

logoFor Immediate Release                                                     

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

Supreme Court Television Advertising Skyrockets Before Election

New York, NY – Candidates, interest groups, and political parties combined to spend $19,861,269 on television advertisements in state Supreme Court elections nationwide this year, announced two national watchdog groups. That figure is up 24 percent from 2006, when they spent barely more than $16 million.

Spending skyrocketed in the week and a half before the election. Between October 24 and November 4 spending on TV ads jumped $7,703,954, up from $12,157,315. Michigan and Alabama joined Wisconsin, where candidates and interest groups there combined to spend $3,789,157 before the general election earlier in the spring, in surpassing $3 million on TV advertising. Spending on advertising in Michigan totaled $3,644,179 and in Alabama total spending on TV advertising was $3,538,361.


“The perception of judges as impartial umpires suffers, in particular, when outsized contributions and expenditures to judicial candidates are made by the very parties who then appear before those same candidates, once they are seated on the bench,” said James Sample, counsel at the Brennan Center.

Average state spending on TV ads set a record this year. Candidates, interest groups, and political parties in each state that had advertising spent an average of $1.65 million on television advertising, up from an average of $1.6 in 2006 and $1.5 in 2004.


Political parties also weighed in much more heavily than in the past. Democratic and Republican state and local committees combined to spend $2,985,941 on television advertising, compared with only $644,989 in 2006. This year Democrats outspent Republicans more than two to one. In Michigan the Democratic State Central Committee spent $1,145,453, compared with $434,366 spent by the Republican Party. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce, however, spent an additional $804,869 on TV advertising supporting the Republican Party’s candidates. In Texas, the Democratic Party and the El Paso County Democratic Party combined spent $921,414 on television advertising, compared with $479,569 spent by the Harris County Republican Party.

In Alabama, the political parties did not weigh in, but Judge Deborah Bell Paseur spent $1,741,179 on TV advertising for her own campaign, compared with the $884,828 her opponent, Judge Greg Shaw spent on ads. The Center for Individual Freedom, an Alexandria, Virginia based interest group supporting Judge Shaw, spent $965,529 on television ads.

“This year was a sharp reminder that TV spending by party bosses can be just as damaging to fair, impartial courts as money from any other backroom special interest,” said Charlie Hall, a spokesman for the Justice at Stake Campaign. “The political parties had taken a back seat two years ago, but in 2008, they roared back in a big way.”

Hall noted that in Michigan, a Democratic Party ad claiming that Chief Justice Cliff Taylor of sleeping in court—a charge Taylor vehemently denied&mdasdh;was cited by some voters as a reason for voting him out of office. Political parties also played a major role in lower court races in 2008. For example, in Texas, Democrats managed to unseat 22 of 26 judges, all Republicans, by encouraging voters to choose their local judges based on straight party-line voting.

Eight states also saw more advertising than ever before. In Idaho, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, Texas, Wisconsin, and West Virginia, the spot count on television advertising was higher than any election year since the Brennan Center began studying television advertising in Supreme Court elections in 2000.

Storyboards and videos of all the Supreme Court ads are available on the Brennan Center’s website.

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.