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Once Courtly, Campaigns for America’s High Courts Now Dominated By Television Attack Ads

November 2, 2006

For Immediate Release
Thursday, November 2, 2006

Contact Information
James Sample, Brennan Center for Justice, 212–992–8648
Jesse Rutledge, Justice at Stake, 202–588–9454

Once Courtly, Campaigns For Americas High Courts
Now Dominated By Television Attack Ads

New York, NY The accusations fly fast and furious: soft on crime, bought and paid for by a special interest, too liberal or out of step with mainstream values – even the airing of personal dirty laundry. This might sound like business as usual in Americas congressional campaigns, but its also increasingly defining the new politics of judicial elections. A new analysis from two national public interest watchdogs indicates that Americans are seeing an increasing escalation in the negativity of state Supreme Court campaigns.

While court campaigns have been getting increasingly strident for the past several years, 2006 may set a new low for how these campaigns are being conducted, said James Sample, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. Campaigns of this sort only further erode public trust in Americas courts, while supplying voters with very little useful information on which to base their decision.

Some of the ads contain accusations that make ads seen in legislative20or executive campaigns seem relatively tame:

In Georgia, nearly $1.3 million has been spent on TV ads alone in what is emerging as one of the most negative judicial campaigns in American history. The Safety and Prosperity Coalition has so far spent $707,570 in an effort to defeat Justice Carol Hunstein. In one of their ads, the group says: Carol Hunstein-voted to throw out evidence that convicted a cocaine trafficker-[she] even ignored extensive case law and overruled a jury to free a savage rapist. Hunsteins campaign has aired an ad attacking her opponent, Mike Wiggins: Mike Wiggins was sued by his own mother for taking her money. He sued his only sister. She said he threatened to kill her while she was eight months pregnant.

In Kentucky, Judge Rick Johnson has attacked his opponent, Judge Bill Cunningham, saying: He tried to make six rapists eligible for parole. One had been out on parole for only 12 hours when he raped a 14 year old and made her mother watch.

In Nevada, a front group called Nevadans Against Judicial Activists attacked incumbent Justice Nancy Becker, saying: With the stroke of a pen, Justice Nancy Becker ignored your vote and violated the law. Beckers advertising campaign has included an attack on her opponent, Judge Nancy Saitta: First she took thousands in contributions from two convicted20topless club owners. Then she slashed bail for gang bangers who brutalized an MGM employee.

Total spending on television ads in high court campaigns has already eclipsed $10 million in 2006, with the 10 final days yet to be tabulated into the results. In the last non-Presidential election year, 2002, spending through Election Day was only $8.3 million. In 2006, television ads have appeared in 92 percent of the states with contested Supreme Court campaigns, up from 64 percent in 2002.

Negative TV ads have also played significant roles in court races in Alabama and Washington in 2006.

The new politics of judicial elections is driven by interest groups who care more about hardball than the rule of law, said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of the Justice at Stake Campaign. These groups want to make judges accountable to them, but Americans want judges to be accountable to the law and the Constitution.