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Voters retain Tenn. SC justices, TV spending surged past $1.4M

By David Yates | Aug 9, 2014

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Legal Newsline) – In a retention election that drew national attention, Tennessee voters on Thursday delivered new eight-year terms to all three incumbent Supreme Court justices who sought retention to the five-member court.

Eight years ago, former Gov. Phil Bredesen appointed justices – Gary Wade, Cornelia Clark and Sharon Lee – to the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Television ad spending in Tennessee’s Supreme Court election surged past $1.4 million in a heated contest that attracted money from in-state and out-of-state sources, according to a Thursday Justice at Stake press release.

“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.”

As previously reported, the justices raised hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past few months in the campaigns to keep their seats.

According to estimates provided by Kantar Media, more than $1.4 million worth of television advertising for and against the justices’ retention had aired by the time polls opened. More than $1 million worth of advertising contracts are also identified in publicly available FCC files.

“Partisans and special interests opened their checkbooks to send a message of intimidation to courts not just in Tennessee, but across America,” said Bert Brandenburg, executive director for Justice at Stake. “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 Tennessee Forum, an anti-retention group funded by a PAC operated by Lt. Gov. 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 press release states.

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 an attorney, also spent $215,840 on TV ads to retain the judges, and Chief Justice Gary Wade funded TV ads totaling $94,980.

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.

Justice at Stake is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization working to keep America's courts fair and impartial, according to it’s website at justiceatstake.org.

Reach David Yates at elections@legalnewsline.com

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