Press Releases

JAS: TN Supreme Court Election Campaign TV Ad Spending Surpassed $1.4 M

Press release from Justice at Stake; August 7, 2014:

WASHINGTON, D.C., August 7–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 who sought retention to the five-member court.

“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.”

“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.”

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.

Press Releases

Stewart Co Election Commish Chair Files Election Finance Complaint Against Justices

Press release from The Tennessee Forum; August 5, 2014:

NASHVILLE — A complaint recently filed with the Registry of Election Finance and made available to the Tennessee Forum levels three new charges at the campaign to retain Supreme Court Judges Connie Clark, Sharon Lee and Gary Wade. The complaint follows an earlier charge against Judge Gary Wade and establishes a pattern of disregard for campaign law and judicial ethics by the judges.

“This latest complaint is clear, concise and well-documented. With the election only days away, I implore Judges Clark, Lee and Wade to answer these charges immediately,” said Susan Kaestner. “The voters have a right to know whether judges seeking eight-year terms as the final arbiter of law and justice in the state have themselves been violating the law.”

“If we can’t trust these judges to follow simple campaign laws, how can we trust them to properly interpret the constitution and laws of this state?”

In the complaint, Robert Mallory says the joint campaign effort of the three judges is coordinating with the newly formed Tennesseans for Fair Courts PAC in violation of Tennessee state law. Mallory, who serves as Chairman of the Stewart County Election Commission, notes that the two groups’ current television ads (seen here and here) contain almost identical messages delivered in a similar way.

Mallory also points out that the campaign’s signs are illegal. Mallory references a news report that includes Justice Sharon Lee placing a campaign yard sign that does not comply with campaign finance law disclosure requirements, which is a criminal violation.

Mallory also notes that the coordinated campaign for the three judges’ Facebook page, which became active in May, carries a URL which is identical in name to the Tennessee for Fair Courts PAC which was not formed until June.

The PAC also failed to disclose whether expenditures were either in-kind or independent or in support of or opposing a particular candidate as required by campaign finance regulations.

A copy of the complaint can be accessed by clicking here.

Press Releases

Supreme Retention, Replacement Campaign Spending Tops $1.5 M

Press release from Justice At Stake; August 1, 2014:

WASHINGTON, D.C., August 1 – In the final week before the August 7 retention election for three incumbent Tennessee Supreme Court justices, spending has soared over a million dollars with both pro-retention and anti-retention groups investing heavily in television advertising, Justice at Stake has found.

“Tennessee has joined a growing club of states where courts face a tidal wave of spending and political pressure,” said Bert Brandenburg, Executive Director of Justice at Stake. “As judicial campaigns grow worse, money and partisan interests can’t be allowed to undercut impartial justice.”

According to state disclosures, the three incumbents, Chief Justice Gary Wade and Justices Cornelia Clark and Sharon Lee, have raised over $1,045,000 among their three campaigns since the start of the year. In addition, a pro-retention group, Tennesseans for Fair Courts, has raised over $46,000 this year.

An anti-retention group, the Tennessee Forum, has raised more than $426,000 since the start of the year, including a contribution of $425,000 from RAAMPAC, the PAC set up by Tennessee Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, who has led efforts to unseat the justices.

In recent days, Ramsey also distributed via email a video instructing voters how to vote against retention of the justices.

In addition, the Republican State Leadership Committee reports expenditures of over $196,000 on an anti-retention direct mail effort, while two other groups have spent undisclosed amounts on anti-retention efforts via direct mail and broadcast advertising: Americans for Prosperity, and the State Government Leadership Foundation, an RSLC partner group. The SGLF has purchased television advertising contracts worth more than $23,000, according to FCC filings by local television stations.

Overall, public files available on the FCC website show that at least $987,000 has been spent to book television advertising contracts by pro- and anti-retention groups. Of this, more than $562,000 has been spent by the justices’ campaigns and supporters, while more than $425,000 has been spent by opponents, led by the Tennessee Forum with more than $402,000.

Links to videos of the ads are available on the Buying Time website of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU.

Press Releases

Pro-retention Group Releases First Ad in Support of TN Supreme Court Justices

Press release from Tennesseans for Fair Courts; July 22, 2014:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (July 22, 2014) – With an unprecedented and nakedly political assault on the Tennessee Supreme Court in full swing, Tennesseans for Fair Courts is ready to strike back with a new ad campaign to protect the independence of the state’s judicial system.

The first ad—a 30-second TV spot—shines a spotlight on the malicious untruths beings spread by political extremists who are attacking three Supreme Court Justices in particular. The ad quotes various media outlets and independent judicial experts who have called the accusations “false,” “misleading,” “lunacy” and a “smear campaign.”

“Experts have evaluated and condemned these false attacks on our state’s Supreme Court, and that is a fact every voter in Tennessee needs to know,” said Clint Kelly, a Hendersonville attorney and spokesperson for Tennesseans for Fair Courts.

The expert analysis, as reported in The Tennessean, WTVF-TV NewsChannel 5, and elsewhere, concludes that accusations that Justices Connie Clark, Sharon Lee and Gary Wade have ever “advanced ObamaCare” are complete fabrications.

“That is the lie of all lies to say they had anything to do with ObamaCare,” said Kelly. “They have not made any rulings on ObamaCare, nor are they likely to because that’s a federal issue and this is a state court.”

In a July 20th editorial titled “Don’t be fooled by the smear campaign,” The Tennessean responded to attempts to connect any state Supreme Court Justice to ObamaCare by saying, “This is lunacy—and a sad case of using a charged buzzword just to inflame and mislead.”

“These falsehoods are part of a transparent power grab by Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey. He isn’t satisfied with a super majority in the state legislature and is trying to seize control of the Supreme Court as well,” said Kelly.

The first 30-second TV spot by Tennesseans for Fair Courts is now available online and will be aired on network and cable television in markets across Tennessee. See the ad at

“Ron Ramsey is embarrassing our state by trying to cast aside the checks and balances established by our Founding Fathers. He’s allowed himself to become a handmaiden for the Koch Brothers and other out-of-state ‘dark money’ groups who want their own personal brand of political extremism to run rampant in our courts,” said Kelly.

According to the Tennessee Bar Association, nine out of ten attorneys in Tennessee want to retain all three justices because they are fairly and impartially administering the law under the Constitutions of the state and the country.

All three justices are also supported by the Fraternal Order of Police, which generally does not make endorsements in supreme court elections but has made an exception in response to the unprecedented politicization of this year’s election.

A bi-partisan group of current and former prosecutors has also publically come out in favor of retaining all three state Supreme Court justices.

Press Releases

Ads For, Against Retention of State Supreme Court Justices Flood TN Airwaves

Press release from Justice At Stake; July 23, 2014:

WASHINGTON, D.C., July 23 – A significant new barrage of politically-charged campaign ads hit Tennessee airwaves this week targeting three state Supreme Court justices up for retention. Among the out-of-state groups spending money to unseat the justices is Americans for Prosperity, a Koch brothers-linked dark money group that also spent money to influence state Supreme Court races in North Carolina and Florida in 2012. Other groups seeking to influence Tennessee’s retention election include the Republican State Leadership Committee, which distributed fliers, and the State Government Leadership Foundation.

The state is seeing a surge of ads both for and against Justices Gary Wade, Cornelia Clark and Sharon Lee as the August 7 retention election approaches. Early voting began July 18. While much of the advertising spending is likely to remain undocumented until the next state disclosure deadline at the end of July, public FCC files show spending on television ad contracts continues to rise, and has crossed the $400,000 threshold.

The ads include:

  • A radio ad sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, criticizing the justices for appointing a “liberal” Attorney General who did not oppose Obamacare.
  • A TV ad sponsored by Tennesseans for Fair Courts, a pro-retention group, disputing claims made in ads opposing the justices.
  • A TV ad sponsored by the Tennessee Forum, a conservative Tennessee group, claiming the justices are “liberal on crime” and “threaten your freedoms.” It urges voters to “replace the liberal Supreme Court.” The group said these ads are part of statewide campaign that will air through the election.
  • A TV ad highlighting the justices’ records, saying they upheld “nearly 90 percent of death sentences,” and urging viewers to vote in favor of their retention.
  • A TV ad from the State Government Leadership Foundation, a partner group of the Republican State Leadership Committee, criticizing the three justices for being “liberal on the Obama agenda.”
  • A TV ad in favor of Justice Gary Wade, describing him as focused on work, family and faith.
  • A TV ad sponsored by Keep Tennessee Courts Fair (the coordinated campaign to retain justices Connie Clark, Sharon Lee and Gary Wade), in which retired Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Mickey Barker says “politics has no place in our courts.”

“The continued flood of money into judicial elections from all sides is already a threat to impartial justice. But if AFP has decided to spend the kind of money in a judicial race that it has spent in other contests around the country, this could transform judicial politics in the United States,” noted Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake, which has been monitoring money and politics in this year’s judicial elections. “More judges are feeling trapped in a system that is persuading many people that justice is for sale.”

“The ads in Tennessee are just the latest in a disturbing trend of outside groups attempting to influence who sits on our courts,” said Alicia Bannon, Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. “People need to feel that judges are accountable to the law, not special interest groups pouring money into retention elections. Ads that politicize judges’ records on the bench undermine the independence of our courts.”