Some Supreme Court candidates spend big

 WASHINGTON, D.C. – 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. Over $433,000 worth of television ads were booked by one 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.”
A breakdown of candidate spending to date indicates that the two incumbent Republican justices, Zahra and Viviano, are purchasing air time together, and have together raised more than $1.3 million. Bernstein has booked more than 1500 ads to start Oct. 14 in major markets, and as of Sept. 12 had raised over $433,000.

The remaining candidates are spending much less. Though local circuit court judge Jmes Robert Redford has raised over $300,000, he reported a balance of nearly $218,000 on Sept. 12. The other local candidate, Chief Judge Bill Murphy of the Michigan Court of Appeals, entered the race late and on Sept. 12 had only spent a couple thousand dollars. Deborah Thomas, another circuit court judge, reports spending only about $20,000.

Doug Dern, a lawyer and Natural Law Party nominee, did not have a disclosure form on file, nor did Kerry L. Morgan, the Libertarian Party nominee for the partial-term seat.

No non-candidate groups were identified as having booked airtime in connection with the Michigan Supreme Court race.

In 2012, costs for the Supreme Court race reached more than $13 million, according to a study by Justice at Stake, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics. A study by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network estimated total spending that year was even higher, reaching nearly $18.9 million.

Contract purchase totals were current as of 5 pm EDT on Sept. 24. The FCC public files are continually updated.