TV ad buys in Michigan Supreme Court races nearing $700,000

Michigan could be on track to see another high-spending ad war in its Supreme Court races this fall, as candidates have already booked nearly $690,000 worth of airtime in TV ad contracts, according to an analysis of publicly available Federal Communications Commission (FCC) files by Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice. More than $433,000 worth of television ads were booked by 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 - Incumbent Justice Viviano, 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 left open by retiring 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 win eight-year terms.

"History may be about to repeat itself in Michigan, which had the most expensive state Supreme Court race in the country in 2012," said 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."

"Judicial candidates in Michigan seem to be stockpiling airtime for yet another campaign ad war this cycle," added 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."

"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 incumbent Republican justices, Richard Zahra and David Viviano, have begun purchasing airtime together. They have 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 cutoff. Their ads are set to begin Oct. 20, FCC records show.

Richard Bernstein, a lawyer who has been legally blind since birth, 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 the Sept. 12 cutoff. Bernstein's disclosure did not list any TV ad buys, but reported a $150,000 expenditure on billboards. His reported balance on Sept. 12 was nearly $164,000. He has likely collected far more money since then, given that costs for media buys filed with the FCC are not yet fully accounted for on his state disclosure forms.

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.

Published: Tue, Sep 30, 2014

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