Michigan is on track for another high-spending ad war in its Supreme Court races this fall, as candidates have already booked nearly $690,000 worth of TV airtime, according to an analysis of publicly available Federal Communications Commission (FCC) files by the Brennan Center for Justice and Justice at Stake. More than $433,000 worth of TV ads were booked by just one Democratic challenger, Richard Bernstein.
There are three open seats on Michigan’s Supreme Court this year and eight candidates vying for them. Three candidates are running for a partial term to fill the seat currently held by Justice David Viviano —Justice Viviano himself, Deborah Thomas, and Kerry Morgan. Two additional full-term seats will also be on the ballot — one held by Justice Brian Zahra, who is seeking reelection, and one open seat created by the retirement of Justice Michael Cavanagh. Justice Zahra, James Robert Redford, Bill Murphy, Dough Dern, and Richard Bernstein are running for these two seats. The top two vote-getters will serve eight-year terms.
“Judicial candidates in Michigan are stockpiling airtime for yet another campaign ad war this cycle,” said Alicia Bannon, Counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice. “Arms race spending has no place in a supreme court election. Judges should spend their time deciding cases, not worrying about fundraising.”
“History may be about to repeat itself in Michigan, which had the most expensive state Supreme Court race in the country in 2012,” added Executive Director Bert Brandenburg of Justice at Stake, which monitors spending in state judicial elections. “For more than a decade, Michigan judges have been pressured to raise growing amounts of money from parties who may appear before them in court.”
“It is regrettable that Supreme Court candidates feel forced to accumulate war chests and spend so much money,” said Rich Robinson, Executive Director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. “We’re also concerned about the possibility of non-candidate money coming into the race, which was a major factor in 2012 when groups that don’t disclose their donors spent heavily in the Supreme Court election. We hope that any spending this year will come from committees that do disclose their donors.”
The following is a breakdown of candidate spending in Michigan’s Supreme Court races to date:
- The two Republican incumbent justices, Richard Zahra and David Viviano have jointly booked a total of 228 slots worth nearly $254,000 in airtime through Nov. 3. Zahra and Viviano, whose campaigns share a treasurer, raised more than $1.3 million combined through the Sept. 12 state disclosure deadline. Their ads are set to begin Oct. 20, FCC records show.
- Lawyer Richard Bernstein booked more than 1,500 ads set to start on Oct. 14 in major markets, with gross airtime totaling more than $433,000. Bernstein reported raising nearly $439,000 through Sept. 12. Bernstein’s disclosure did not list any TV ad buys, but reported a $150,000 expenditure on billboards. His campaign reported a balance of nearly $164,000 on Sept. 12.
- James Robert Redford, a circuit court judge and Republican nominee, reported raising just over $300,000 in contributions and had a balance of nearly $218,000 on Sept. 12.
- Deborah Thomas, a circuit court judge and Democrat nominee, reported collecting some $29,000 and spending $20,000 through Sept. 12.
- Bill Murphy, chief judge on the state Court of Appeals and a Democrat nominee, reported nearly $37,000 in contributions and had nearly $35,000 remaining on Sept. 12.
- Doug Dern, a lawyer and Natural Law Party nominee, did not have a disclosure form on file with the Michigan Department of State. Nor did Kerry L. Morgan, the Libertarian Party nominee for the partial-term seat.
No non-candidate groups were identified as having booked airtime in connection with the Michigan Supreme Court race.
In 2012, costs for the Supreme Court race reached more than $13 million, according to a study by Justice at Stake, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics. A study by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network estimated total spending that year was even higher, reaching nearly $18.9 million.
Contract purchase totals were current as of 5 pm EDT on Sept. 24. The FCC public files are continually updated.