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TV Ad Bookings Soars to $2.4 Million in Pennsylvania Supreme Court Primary

TV ad buys jumped to nearly $2.4 million in Pennsylvania's Supreme Court primary this week, raising serious concerns over how fundraising may impact judges’ decisions on the bench.

May 15, 2015

Pennsylvania Supreme Court primary candidates are airing a barrage of last-minute television advertising, pushing broadcast TV ad buy totals up to at least $2.4 million as of May 15, according to Federal Communications Commission records analyzed by Brennan Center for Justice and Justice at Stake. This represents almost $1 million in new ad buys in three days.

Seven of the 12 candidates running in the primary are running television ads, which can be seen on the Brennan Center’s “Buying Time” website. The ads continue to focus on themes of ethics and candidate qualifications, with no advertising purchased to date by interest groups or political parties. 

“The recent upswing in spending raises concerns about fundraising pressure on judicial candidates,” said Alicia Bannon, Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. “Historically lawyers, law firms, and special interests have been major contributors to Pennsylvania judicial candidates, which raises questions over how fundraising may impact judges’ decisions on the bench. We need stronger protections to insulate judges from the appearance of bias.”

“Unfortunately, it looks like Pennsylvanians could be heading for an historically costly battle over three Supreme Court seats,” said Bert Brandenburg, Executive Director of Justice at Stake, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that advocates for fair courts. “The TV ad dollars are multiplying literally overnight, and this is just for the primary. The spectacle of so much spending, on top of recent scandals affecting the Court, ought to put insulating judges from money and political pressure at the top of Pennsylvania’s agenda.”  

“This is just the tip of the iceberg compared to what we’ll likely see before the race ends in November,” commented Lynn Marks, Executive Director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts. “The real problem is that the money for all this advertising is flowing into campaign coffers from the same lawyers, law firms and special interests that could someday appear before these judges in court.  Just seeing this amount of spending should make Pennsylvanians stop and think about whether there isn’t a better way to choose our judges.”

The Democratic primary continues to see the highest ad spending. Judge Kevin Dougherty has now booked contracts totaling at least $1 million according to FCC files. Judge David Wecht has booked TV contracts worth nearly $440,000, while Judge John Foradora has booked TV contracts worth at least $200,000. Judge Anne Lazarus has booked ad contracts totaling over $200,000 as well. Judges Dwayne Woodruff and Christine Donohue have not booked any TV ads to date.

Republican candidates have increased their TV ad spending, but to a lesser extent. Judge Anne Covey has now booked contracts worth nearly $140,000. Judges Judy Olson and Michael George have jointly booked ad contracts worth at least $170,000. In addition, George has booked separate contracts worth nearly $200,000, and Olson has booked separate contracts worth at least $30,000. No ad contracts have been logged to date for Justice Correale Stevens, Judge Cheryl Lynn Allen, or Montour County District Attorney Rebecca Warren, the remaining Republicans in the race.

Pennsylvania has a history of high-cost judicial elections, but with an unprecedented three seats open this year, this race has the potential to break state spending records. The ideological balance of the court also hangs in the balance. The highest TV spending totals in a Supreme Court election in the state occurred back in 2007, when they reached $4.6 million for the year (with two open seats and one retention election).

Please note: Totals include broadcast television contracts publicly available from FCC files only. Additional spending for radio or cable television advertising is not included.

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