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State Supreme Court elections set spending record

Legal News Reporter

Published: January 4, 2013

The candidates, parties and outside groups spending for the three Ohio Supreme Court races contested in 2012 exceeded $1.7 million, according to a study released by the Brennan Center for Justice of the New York University School of Law on Dec. 17.

Overall spending on Supreme Court races throughout the country set records for both money spent and number of commercials, the study found, totaling $29,701.40. That amount gave the electorate 51,328 ads. Of that total, a little over $9 million came from groups that were not a political party or the candidate’s campaign.

Ten states saw television spending on judicial campaigns exceed $1 million.

The figures quoted from that study do not include the cost of production, nor do they include agent percentages, so the actual figures are higher than these, which only reflect the cost of the ad buy.

Overall, there were 20 states with contestable state Supreme Court seats in 2012, with a total of 46 seats at stake. Twenty-five high court judges in 13 states faced one-candidate retention elections, in which voters choose whether to give incumbents another term.

Television ads for (or against) judicial candidates ran in 16 states.

Here in Ohio, the races for the Supreme Court spent a total of $1,722,390 on 4,699 ads.

Of that Ohio figure, $141,720 came from one outside group, Partnership for Ohio’s Future, which is the PAC affiliated with the Ohio Chamber of Commerce. That was the only group listed in the study that was not either the campaign itself or a political party.

These numbers are only for money spent on advertising. According to figures compiled by the American Judicature Society (AJS), here is the total money raised by the judicial campaigns for the 2012 Ohio Supreme Court elections:

Robert Cupp: $658,863 (lost bid for reelection);

Yvette McGee Brown: $1,017,965 (lost bid for reelection);

Sharon Kennedy: $726,020 (won);

Terrence O’Donnell: $522,871 (won reelection);

William O’Neill: $4,464 (won);

Mike Skindell: $122,916 (lost).

This money does not reflect spending by the respective candidates’ political parties or by outside PACs.

According to the AJS, and discounting the most recent election cycle, since the year 2000, candidates for the Ohio Supreme Court have raised nearly $20 million. Six of the seven sitting Ohio Supreme Court Justices who were members of the court before the last election cycle raised at least $1 million in their winning campaigns (the seventh ran unopposed).

The amounts that an individual can contribute to a judicial campaign have been limited since 2009 to the following: $3,450 for Supreme Court candidates, $1,150 for court of appeals candidates and $575 for candidates for the court of common pleas, municipal court and county court.

PAC contribution limits are $6,325 for Supreme Court candidates and $3,450 for candidates for other courts.

Nationally, the amounts spent on advertising by candidates for their respective states’ Supreme Court, along with the number of ads run, are (rounded figures):

Alabama: $3.3 million, 7,600;

Arkansas: $168,000, 560;

Florida: $2.75 million, 1,900;

Illinois: $1.33 million. 1,000;

Iowa: $163,000, 265;

Kentucky: $132,000, 275;

Louisiana: $1.9 million, 2,800;

Michigan: $9 million (reported as exceeding $10 million), 16,000;

Mississippi: $1.7 million, 3,600;

Montana: $22,000, 128;

North Carolina: $3.2 million, 3,800;

Ohio: $1.7 million, 4,700;

Oregon: $92,000, 192;

Texas: $1.17 million, 2,100;

West Virginia: $1.24 million, 5,600.

The Brennan Center reports that Michigan and Louisiana had particularly lopsided financing.

In Michigan, the candidates spent a little over $1 million, while the political parties spent between $7 and 10 million on judicial elections in that state.

In Louisiana, a runoff election that was held Dec. 8 saw over $100,000 spent in the last two weeks of the election, and over $400,000 spent by one PAC alone for one seat on the court.

Three states had ballot initiatives that would have changes the way that judges were selected. All three initiatives lost.

Voters in Missouri, Arizona and Florida all rejected measures that were characterized by the Brennan Center as, “referenda to change merit-based judicial selection systems in ways that could inject partisan politics into state courts.”

Outside groups spent millions of dollars in retention elections trying to unseat four sitting state justices—three in Florida and one in Iowa. All four judges kept their seats.