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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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