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TV Ad Spending in Michigan Supreme Court Race Surges Past $1 Million

October 10, 2014

 TV Ad Spending in Michigan Supreme Court Race Surges Past $1 Million  

Michigan Leads Nation in TV Spending in Fall Supreme Court Races 

Contact: Laurie Kinney, lkinney@justiceatstake.org; 202-588-9454, cell 571-882-3615, or Seth Hoy, seth.hoy@nyu.edu, 646-­292-­8369 

WASHINGTON, D.C., October 10 – Spending on television advertising airtime has topped $1 million in three contested races for the Michigan Supreme Court, as the state Republican Party began an ad campaign touting its nominees, according to an analysis by Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice of publicly available Federal Communications Commission (FCC) files and data from Kantar/CMAG. Nationally, the amount spent on TV ads in Michigan is the highest documented thus far in the Supreme Court elections this fall, totaling $1,234,312.  

Michigan’s Supreme Court candidates have spent nearly $990,000 on airtime bookings for ads in the general election, according to FCC files. Meanwhile, the Michigan Republican Party’s TV ad campaign has cost an estimated $244,720 thus far, according to estimates by Kantar/CMAG, which captures ads that have already aired in major media markets. Eight candidates are running for three open seats on Michigan’s high court. 

“It’s troubling that spending in Michigan’s Supreme Court race is again on track to reach astronomical proportions,” said Executive Director Bert Brandenburg of Justice at Stake, which monitors spending in state judicial elections. “Michigan has become a national symbol of an arms race that is putting pressure on judges to answer to political pressure instead of the law and the constitution.” 

“Michigan is again leading the charge on TV ad spending in judicial elections,” added Alicia Bannon, Counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice. “With the highest TV ad expenditures in the nation in 2012, Michigan seems to be ground zero for politicized judicial ad wars. We need to insulate judges and candidates from election politics so that people trust that Michigan’s courts are fair and impartial. Stronger judicial recusal rules and public financing for Michigan’s Supreme Court elections would be good first steps.” 

“The TV ad spending that is traceable so far is really just the tip of the iceberg,” said Rich Robinson, Executive Director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. “Furthermore, the Michigan Republican Party ad appears to be a phony ‘issue’ ad that will not be disclosed to the Michigan Bureau of Elections, although we won’t know that for certain until pre-election reports are filed. If this is, in fact, dark money, this is the type of spending that undermines the presumption of impartial justice.” 

The GOP ad, which first ran on Oct. 1, praises the Republican Party nominees, Justice David Viviano, Justice Brian Zahra and James Robert Redford for handing out “tough sentences” and “protecting Michigan’s children.”    

Redford and incumbent Zahra are among five candidates vying for two full terms on Nov. 4, one currently held by Zahra and the other left open by retiring Justice Michael Cavanagh. Bill Murphy, Doug Dern, and Richard Bernstein are also running. The two candidates who receive the most votes will take office. 

For the third open seat, incumbent Viviano, who was appointed in 2013, will face Deborah Thomas and Kerry Morgan to complete a remaining term for that post. 

The Michigan Republican Party is the first non-candidate group to air ads in the state’s Supreme Court races. In 2012, three interest groups – the state Democratic and Republican parties and Washington D.C.-based Judicial Crisis Network – together outspent the high-court candidates by roughly 3:1, according to a study by Justice at Stake, the Brennan Center and the National Institute on Money in State Politics. 

Michigan’s Supreme Court election is officially nonpartisan, but candidates are nominated by political parties. In addition to Democratic and Republican candidates, nominees from the Libertarian Party and Natural Law Party also are running for high-court seats this year. 


The following is a breakdown of candidate ad spending from FCC records in Michigan’s Supreme Court races to date: 


·         Brian Zahra and David Viviano have booked 884 ads at a gross airtime cost of nearly $501,000. The candidates are splitting the expense for the joint ads.

·         Richard Bernstein has booked more than 1,700 ads at a gross airtime cost of nearly $489,000. 

FCC records were identified from the following Michigan TV stations: WMYD, WADL, WXYZ, WKBD, WWJ, WNEM, WJRT, WSMH, WWMT, WZZM, WLNS, WHTV, WLAJ, WSYM, WDIV, WLUC, WPBN, WGTU, WWTV, WFQX, WLIX, WBKB, WOOD, WBUP and WTOM. 

Contract purchase totals were current as of 5 p.m. EDT on Oct. 8. The FCC public files are continually updated.

Spending estimates for the Michigan Republican Party were calculated 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. 


Justice at Stake is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization working to keep America's courts fair and impartial. Justice at Stake and its 50-plus state and national partners educate the public, and work for reforms to keep politics and special interests out of the courtroom - so judges can protect our Constitution, our rights and the rule of law. For more about Justice at Stake, go to www.justiceatstake.org or www.gavelgrab.org

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law is a non-partisan public policy and law institute that focuses on fundamental issues of democracy and justice.  Its work ranges from voting rights to campaign finance reform, from racial justice in criminal law to presidential power in the fight against terrorism. A singular institution — part think tank, part public interest law firm, part advocacy group — the Brennan Center combines scholarship, legislative and legal advocacy, and communications to win meaningful, measurable change in the public sector.  For more information about the Brennan Center, go to www.brennancenter.org.

The positions and policies of Justice at Stake publications and campaign partners are their own, and do not necessarily reflect those of other campaign partners or board members.
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