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TV Spending Surges in State Supreme Court Races

Spending on state Supreme Court TV ads has exploded nationally as Election Day nears, with $3.3 million being spent in the week between Oct. 21 and Oct. 27.  The TV binge has raised total ad spending to near $13 million for the 2009–10 election cycle, with business and conservative groups outspending lawyers and unions in every major state except Illinois.

October 29, 2010

Business and Conservatives Outspend Rivals, Reform Groups Report

For Immediate Release

Contact: Jeanine Plant-Chirlin, Brennan Center for Justice, (646) 292–8322;

Spending on state Supreme Court TV ads has exploded nationally as Election Day nears, with $3.3 million being spent in the week between Oct. 21 and Oct. 27. The TV binge has raised total ad spending to near $13 million for the 2009–10 election cycle, with business and conservative groups outspending lawyers and unions in every major state except Illinois.

Several ads have included questionable claims, stirring complaints by editorial pages, a judges association, and, which reviews campaign advertising. Factcheck rejected claims in one Michigan Democratic ad, while accusing an Illinois group of cherry-picking cases to attack an incumbent judge.

Through Wednesday, Oct. 27, $8,154,920 has been spent nationally on TV air time in 2010 judicial elections, including primary and general election advertising.  Of that, $7,152,580 was spent in the general election, between Aug. 1 and Oct. 27, and $3,391,730 — 41% of total spending for the year — was spent in the seven days from Oct. 21 through Oct. 27.

“The lion’s share of TV spending in judicial campaigns takes place just before Election Day, and over the past week there has been a dramatic increase in the volume of TV ads being run in judicial elections across the country,” said Adam Skaggs, Counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice.  “Many of these spots are mudslinging attack ads by candidates and outside special interests which have been widely denounced as slanderous and misleading at best.”  

Including $4.6 million spent on TV ads in 2009, the current total for the 2009–2010 election cycle is approximately $12.8 million, compared with around $16 million in the last non-presidential election cycle, 2005–2006.  The highest total for TV advertising in a two-year election cycle occurred in 2007–2008, when candidates, political parties and outside special interest groups combined to spend $26.6 million on TV airtime.  

Non-candidate groups have led the way.

Three of the top spenders in the Iowa retention election, which has hinged on a 2009 ruling upholding same-sex marriage, have been national conservative groups. Of the nearly $1.1 million spent on that election, a total of $654,000 has come from the National Organization for Marriage, the Family Research Council, and the Campaign for Working Families, which has ties with the Family Research Council.

Nationally, four of the top five TV ad spenders in the general election (Aug. 1 – Oct. 27) are non-candidate groups. The greatest disparities between non-candidate and candidate general election TV spending are in Michigan and Ohio.

The following are highlights from the last week of national judicial elections, as updated in Judicial Elections 2010, a web site jointly operated by the Justice at Stake Campaign and the Brennan Center for Justice. TV ad information also is available at the Brennan Center’s “Buying Time 2010” page.

National Overview

Illinois Justice Thomas Kilbride, who is seeking another term in a one-candidate retention election, remains the national leader both in campaign fundraising, as well as TV ad spending by a candidate. Through Oct. 28, Kilbride had raised $2.5 million. Of that, $1,425,000 had come from the Democratic Party of Illinois, whose funding primarily comes from plaintiffs’ lawyers, unions and House Speaker Mike Madigan.

The Illinois Civil Justice League, the group challenging Kilbride, has raised $648,000, most of it from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; the American Justice Partnership, a group closely aligned with the National Association of Manufacturers; and the American Tort Reform Association.

Kilbride has spent $1,361,550 on TV, more than all but a single non-candidate group, the Michigan Republican Party.  All together, four of the five biggest spenders are non-candidate groups.  

The Michigan Republican Party ranks first overall in TV spending ($1,399,100).  Kilbride ranks second; the Partnership for Ohio’s Future ranks third (846,340); the Michigan State Democratic Party ranks fourth ($554,470); and the Law Enforcement Alliance of America ($356,570) ranks fifth.

In Michigan, the Republican Party and the Law Enforcement Alliance of America, a Virginia-based interest group, have spent $1.75 million in support of two Republican candidates, while the Democratic Party has spent about $554,000 supporting two Democrats.  Together, these non-candidate groups combined to spend $2,310,140 — 86% of total TV spending in Michigan — compared to a total of $366,320 spent by the candidates.

In Ohio, the Partnership for Ohio’s Future is responsible for approximately 51% of all general election TV spending, underwriting $846,270 in ad buys supporting Republican candidates Judith Lanzinger and Maureen O’Connor.  The O’Connor and Lanzinger campaigns each spent an additional $320,000. Democrats Eric Brown and Mary Jane Trapp have spent a combined $177,490 — about 10% of all TV spending in Ohio’s supreme court election spending.

Questionable Ads has weighed in with a review of disputed ads in the 2010 election season, in Michigan, Illinois and Iowa. Citing a Michigan Democratic Party ad that accused Justice Robert Young of barring suits against polluters, Factcheck says, “In fact, any citizen directly affected by environmental harm can still sue.”

Factcheck also criticized an Illinois Civil Justice League ad attacking Kilbride — an ad also assailed by the Illinois Judges Association as “ugly” and deceptive. According to Factcheck, the JustPac ad “cherry-picks cases in its ad to portray Justice Thomas Kilbride as pro-criminal.”

And in Alabama, a newspaper sharply criticized a radio ad by Justice Thomas Parker, in which Parker suggested that a federal judge, who struck down the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gay military personnel, was as great a threat to national security as al-Quaeda.

Retention Election Spending

Nationally, about $4.3 million has been spent on retention elections in 2010, driven by races in which Illinois and Iowa justices face stiff challenges. That is nearly twice the $2.2 million spent in all retention elections nationally for the entire 2000–2009 decade, as documented in “The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2000–2009: Decade of Change.”

Supreme Court justices also are being challenged in Colorado, but relatively little money has been raised in that effort. According to TNS Media Intelligence, about $130,000 in ads relating to the Colorado high court race have aired since Aug. 1.

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The Justice at Stake Campaign is a nonpartisan national partnership working to keep our courts fair, impartial and free from special-interest and partisan agendas. In states across America, Campaign partners work to protect our courts through public education, grass-roots organizing and reform. The Campaign provides strategic coordination and brings organizational, communications and research resources to the work of its partners and allies at the national, state and local levels. For information, visit

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law is a nonpartisan public policy and law institute that focuses on fundamental issues of democracy and justice. The Center works on issues including judicial independence, voting rights, campaign finance reform, racial justice in criminal law and presidential power in the fight against terrorism. Part think tank, part public interest law firm, part advocacy group, the Brennan Center combines scholarship, legislative and legal advocacy, and communications to win meaningful, measurable change in the public sector. For more information, visit

TV Methodology
All data on ad airings and spending on ads are calculated and prepared by TNS Media Intelligence/CMAG, which captures satellite data in that nation’s largest media markets.  CMAG’s calculations do not reflect ad agency commissions or the costs of producing advertisements.  The costs reported here therefore understate actual expenditures; the estimates are useful principally for purposes of comparison of relative spending levels across states.

Click here for a pdf version of the release.