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Buying Time: Television Advertising in the 2004 State Supreme Court Elections

Leading up to the November 2004 election, the Brennan Center released real-time reports on television advertising in state Supreme Court elections.

Published: January 1, 2008

Leading up to the November 2004 election, the Brennan Center released real-time reports on television advertising in state Supreme Court elections. The 2004 reports continued the groundbreaking analysis first conducted in 2000 and 2002, examining the sponsorship, content and costs of televised state Supreme Court campaign ads. Analyses of advertising over these three cycles has culminated in three reports, The New Politics of Judicial Elections, The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2002, and The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2004.These studies document the growing threats to fair and impartial courts from big money, special interest pressure, and television air wars.

Major findings from the 2004 study include:

  • TV ads Appear in Supreme Court Races in 4 of 5 States with Contested Elections. In 2004, candidates, political parties and special interest groups took to the airwaves in 4 of every 5 states where candidates ran head-to-head. Since 2000, only two states with contested Supreme Court elections—Minnesota and North Dakota—have remained free of TV ads.
  • Spending on Airtime Smashes Record. A total of $24.4 million was spent on TV ads in high court races, obliteraing the previous record of $10.6 million set in 2000. In 2004, 1 in 4 dollars raised by candidates covered airtime costs.
  • Ads Are Appearing Earlier in the Campaign Cycle. The number of states experiencing TV ads during their judicial primary elections increased from two states in 2002 to nine states in 2004. Spending on primary election ads skyrocketed from $96,000 to almost $4.3 million over that period.

The following additional resources are available:

  • Final Data Analysis: The 2004 election season saw over $24 million worth of television advertising in 15 states (AL, AR, GA, IL, KY, LA, MI, MS, NC, NM, NV, OH, OR, WA, WV) with Supreme Court elections. Cumulative data on all television advertising airing through the election is available on the following web page, including charts comparing this year’s states and charts comparing previous election years:

    • Storyboards: All of the advertisements covered in the report are available for viewing on the web as storyboards. The storyboards contain screen captures of the ads at timed intervals, along with complete text. A pdf version of each ad is indexed on the following web page.
    • Court Pester E-lert: The Center’s Court Pester E-lert tracked and summarized articles and opinion pieces on state judicial elections. For further research on the players, the issues, and more, consult the Searchable Court E-lert Database, which is updated twice weekly.


    Cost of Air Time
    Cost estimates were provided by the Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG) and are based on the average cost of a media buy for the airing time and station. This calculation does not include either premium costs often associated with ad buys or the costs of production.

    For the report, ad themes were coded as follows:

    • Traditional Judicial—does not discuss issues or allegiances; discusses the personal and professional qualifications of the candidate (e.g., statements about the candidate’s education/training/ experience/background, family/community involvement, fairness/impartiality, character/temperament)
    • Civil Justice—protection/rights of injured, dangerous/defective products, accidents, personal injury lawyers/trial lawyers, HMOs, doctors, corporations/big business, drug/insurance companies, puts people first, right to trial by jury, lawsuit abuse
    • Criminal Justice—death penalty, overturns convictions, tough/soft on crime/criminals, victims’ rights, technicalities/loopholes/appeals
    • Special Interest Influence—for sale/sold, supporters are buying a seat on the court, in the pocket of/influenced by special interests, campaign financing
    • Criticism for Decision(s)—in a specific case or type of case
    • Family/Conservative Values—protects children/families/community/religion
    • Role of Judges—how judges should act while on the bench and when presiding over cases
    • Attack—criticism of a candidate not related to the judiciary
    • Civil Rights—voting rights, minority rights