TV Spending Surges Past $1.4 Million in Tennessee Judicial Race

August 7, 2014

Television ad spending in Tennessee’s Supreme Court election surged past $1.4 million in a tough contest that attracted money from in-state and out-of-state sources. On Thursday, voters delivered new eight-year terms to all three incumbent Tennessee justices (Chief Justice Gary Wade, Justice Cornelia Clark, and Justice Sharon Lee) who sought retention to the five-member court.

“The amount spent attempting to influence this retention election is deeply troubling,” said Alicia Bannon, Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. “Arms race spending has no place in a supreme court election. Tennesseans shouldn’t have to worry about outside groups playing politics with their courts every time there is an election.”

 “Partisans and special interests opened their checkbooks to send a message of intimidation to courts not just in Tennessee, but across America,” said Justice at Stake Executive Director Bert Brandenburg. “And to survive, Tennessee’s Supreme Court justices have had to become professional fundraisers, often soliciting money from parties who will appear before them in court.”

According to estimates provided by Kantar Media/CMAG, more than $1.4 million worth of television advertising for and against the justices’ retention had aired by the time polls opened today.  More than a million dollars’ worth of advertising contracts are also identified in publicly-available FCC files.

The Tennessee Forum, an anti-retention group funded by a PAC operated by Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey, spent an estimated $474,150 on TV ads.  An out-of-state group, The State Government Leadership Foundation, also spent $63,390 on TV ads to unseat the justices. Americans for Prosperity, a Koch Brothers-funded group, spent money on anti-retention radio campaign for which expenditures remain undisclosed.

The most spending on TV ads, however, came from the justices themselves, who spent an estimated $579,870 in joint ads defending against anti-retention efforts. Tennesseans for Fair Courts, a group formed by a local attorney, also spent $215,840 on TV ads to retain the judges, and Chief Justice Gary Wade funded TV ads totaling $94,980.

Skyrocketing judicial election spending has become the rule, not the exception in recent years. The $1.4-million Tennessee Supreme Court race follows a $1.3-million judicial primary in North Carolina in May, in which the Republican State Leadership Committee was a major spender, and an Arkansas Supreme Court race in which advertising spending doubled over the previous cycle.

The escalating spending on a judicial election in Tennessee matched a national trend of increasing expenditures on judicial elections since 2000, Brandenburg and Bannon noted.  In recent years, the trend has spread to several states, such as Tennessee, that have worked to insulate courts from political pressure by establishing merit selection systems.  Retention (up-or-down) elections held within the framework of merit selection systems have begun to attract spending and political pressure not previously seen in these races.

Television spending data for the Tennessee race, ads, and storyboards, are available at the Brennan Center’s Buying Time: Tennessee 2014 webpage. For past spending in judicial elections, read The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2011-2012: How New Waves of Special Interest Spending Raised the Stakes for Fair Courts, a report released by the Brennan Center, Justice at Stake and the National Institute on Money in State Politics. No fundraising or advertising has been previously documented in Tennessee Supreme Court elections in the New Politics reports.

TV Methodology

All data on ad airings and spending estimates are calculated and prepared by Kantar Media/CMAG, which captures satellite data in the nation’s largest media markets. CMAG’s calculations do not reflect ad agency commissions or the costs of producing advertisements, nor do they reflect the cost of ad buys on local cable channels. Cost estimates are revised by Kantar Media/CMAG when it receives updated data, resulting in some fluctuations in the reported ad spending.