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Costly Judicial Retention Election Ads Ramp Up in Tennessee

The first television ads calling for voters to oust three Tennessee Supreme Court justices facing retention on August 7th have hit the state’s airwaves, as the retention election continues to heat up.

July 21, 2014

New York – The first television ads calling for voters to oust three Tennessee Supreme Court justices facing retention on August 7th have hit the state’s airwaves, as the retention election continues to heat up. 

An ad sponsored by the Tennessee Forum, a conservative Tennessee group, claims 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.

Public records show that the Tennessee Forum has spent at least $119,055 on television ad contracts in the Nashville, Knoxville, Jackson, Tri-Cities and Chattanooga markets on several stations: WTVF ($30,800); WKRN ($11,150); WSMV ($13,670); WATE ($7,865); WVLT ($12,250); WBIR ($19,155); WDEF ($3,735); WDSI ($1,925); WJHL (16,065); and WTNZ ($2,440).

“Campaign ads on both sides that politicize judges’ rulings in criminal cases are particularly troubling,” said Alicia Bannon, Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. “Characterizing judges as soft or tough on crime could put pressure on judges to decide cases with an eye toward how their judgment will be portrayed in the next election cycle."

 “Bare-knuckle Supreme Court campaigns have been spreading around the country, and now it’s Tennessee’s turn,” noted Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake, which has been monitoring money and politics in this year’s judicial elections. “The new ad is right out of the usual playbook, accusing judges of being soft on crime.  As spending accelerates on both sides, yet another state court is being pressured to raise big money and answer to interest groups and politicians.”

Public records show that the justice's campaigns have spent at least $201,495 so far on television ad contracts in the Memphis, Nashville, Jackson and Knoxville markets on several stations: WKRN ($23,010); three buys on WSMV ($20,340, $21,975, $9,175); WTVF ($21,850); WHBQ ($3,605); WLMT ($1,245); WREG ($16,230); three buys on WBIR ($14,245, $20,025, $6,915); WVLT ($8,165); WTNZ ($3,250); WATN ($3,320); WMC ($13,365); and two buys on WATE ($6,940, $7,840).

The justices' campaign ad highlights their records, saying they upheld “nearly 90 percent of death sentences,” and urges viewers to vote in favor of their retention. 

Since 2000, the Brennan Center for Justice, Justice at Stake, 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.

See television ads on our Tennessee Buying Time 2014 page here.