Special Interest Groups Tighten Grip on State Court Races
New York, NY – More than $3.1 million has already been spent this year on TV ads in state supreme court primaries and off-cycle elections, according to estimates provided by Kantar Media/CMAG and released by the Brennan Center and Justice at Stake. Three states with off-cycle elections (Tennessee, Idaho, and Arkansas) saw greater spending than in their last election cycle, two states (Arkansas and Tennessee) experienced outside spending by special interest for the first time, and North Carolina had record spending in its primary (more than $1.3 million).
In November, eight states will have contested elections for their supreme courts and 14 states will have retention elections, where judges face a yes-or-no vote. Special interest groups are expected to flood these elections with TV ad buys and other independent expenditures in an attempt to reshape state courts.
The Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), a conservative group whose stated mission is to “elect down-ballot, state-level Republican officeholders,” has reportedly identified judicial races in six states — Ohio, Michigan, Montana, North Carolina, New Mexico and Texas — where it intends to spend money.
“If the high stakes spending we’ve already seen this year is any bellwether, we can expect a lot more from special interest groups and candidates this November,” said Alicia Bannon, Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. “Business interests and national political organizations realize that they can have a huge impact on a state’s legal landscape with a relatively small amount of money, funding front groups and attack ads in an attempt to reshape state courts.”
“The warning signs are there: more special interest campaigns are on the way to capture courts and pressure judges,” said Justice at Stake Executive Director Bert Brandenburg. “It’s time to start looking seriously at solutions that would reduce political pressure on our courts, put quality first and keep judges from raising money from parties who appear before them.”
The RSLC spent $900,000 in the North Carolina Supreme Court primary this year, largely in donations to Justice for All NC, a group that ran unsuccessful TV attack ads against incumbent Justice Robin Hudson.
Outside groups also spent heavily in Arkansas and Tennessee this year, accounting for 88 and 53 percent of TV spending in those states, respectively. Special interest groups were responsible for 38 percent of total TV spending in 2011–12, and they have constituted 60 percent of TV spending in 2014 to date.
For the most current spending data, TV ads, and storyboards, visit the Brennan Center’s Buying Time 2014 webpage. Past spending in state judicial elections is also available in The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2011–2012: How New Waves of Special Interest Spending Raised the Stakes for Fair Courts, a report released by the Brennan Center, Justice at Stake and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.