The Law Enforcement Alliance of America (LEAA), a group with reported ties to the National Rifle Association, 1 ran an attack ad in 2014 against attorney Tim Cullen, who faced off against Judge Robin Wynne in a nonpartisan race for an open seat on the Arkansas Supreme Court. The ad accused Cullen of “work[ing] to throw out the sentence of a repeat sexual predator,” as well as “arguing that child pornography was a victimless crime.” The spot was criticized by FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, which argued that the case referred to in the advertisement was “repeatedly misused in the ad to create a misleading narrative based on a partial set of facts,” and left a “false impression that Cullen was seeking to have [his client] avoid jail time altogether.” 2 FactCheck.org noted that Cullen, who had been appointed by the court to represent this client, did not explicitly say that child pornography was a “victimless crime” in his legal brief. Cullen responded with an ad of his own saying his opponents were “despicable for trying to exploit sexually abused children for political gain.” This marked the first attack ad in the state, as well as the first time Arkansas had seen television spending by an outside group, since the New Politics report began tracking TV ads in 2000. Wynne, who saw the most TV spending in his favor, won the May 2014 race with 52 percent of the vote. 3 Two additional seats on the Arkansas Supreme Court were also up for election in 2014, but both candidates ran unopposed and did not place any TV ads.
Justice for All NC sponsored one of the most vicious spots this cycle. Airing in the North Carolina primary, the ad alleged that Justice Robin Hudson ruled in favor of child predators, saying she was “not tough on child molesters, not fair to victims.” The North Carolina Bar Association condemned the spot, saying the commercial “and others like it are an unfair attack on the legal profession.” 4 Hudson’s campaign quickly responded with a positive ad that highlighted her experience on the court and her role as a mother of two children, urging voters not to be “fooled by distortions and lies.” After the primary, the nonpartisan Supreme Court general election took on a more positive tone, with ads focusing mainly on the qualifications and experiences of the candidates. These candidates spent most of the TV money themselves, accounting for nearly 66 percent of television dollars in the primary and general races. Hudson won both her contested primary and contested general election, receiving 43 percent and 52 percent 5 of the vote, respectively. Contests for the three additional state Supreme Court seats on the ballot also saw TV spending this cycle, but Hudson’s race drew the most dollars.
Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier faced strong opposition from a group largely funded by plaintiffs’ trial lawyers, Campaign for 2016, during his November 2014 retention race, resulting in a flurry of negative ads in the weeks leading up to the election. Campaign for 2016 ran several spots that accused Karmeier of allowing corporations and “their allies [to funnel] millions of dollars into [his] campaign,” and calling him the “special-interest judge.” This alluded to Karmeier’s refusal to recuse himself from two cases in which plaintiffs said his campaign benefited from spending by parties involved in the lawsuits. (See “Illinois: Plaintiffs’ Lawyers and Big Tobacco Face Off” in Chapter 2.) One ad attacked the justice for “letting corporations buy justice.” The RSLC responded to Campaign for 2016’s ads with a spot praising Karmeier for offering “no leniency for violent criminals.” The RSLC, however, was outspent by Campaign for 2016 (an estimated $731,000 compared to Campaign for 2016’s nearly $1.1 million). Karmeier, who needed 60 percent of the vote to remain on the bench, squeaked by with just 60.8 percent. 6
Justices Cornelia Clark, Sharon Lee, and Gary Wade faced a difficult retention battle in Tennessee. They were targeted for ouster with several attack ads from the Tennessee Forum, a group that received substantial support from Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey’s PAC. One ad accused the justices of advancing “Obamacare in Tennessee,” despite the fact that the court never made a decision concerning the law. The spot also claimed that the justices were “liberal on crime.” The State Government Leadership Foundation ran a similar spot attacking the justices’ records on Obamacare and criminal justice issues.
The majority of the TV spending in the state, however, was in support of the justices. A group called Tennesseans for Fair Courts—largely supported by trial attorneys—sponsored an ad refuting the attacks on the justices, calling them a “smear campaign.” The justices themselves poured nearly $850,000 into ads supporting their retention, highlighting their histories of “protecting individual rights, the Second Amendment right to bear arms, and upholding nearly 90 percent of death sentences”—even though media reports indicated that the justices never heard a case on the Second Amendment. 7 Voters eventually retained all three justices in August 2014.
Although all four candidates running in Ohio’s nonpartisan judicial elections signed a pledge with the Ohio State Bar Association to refrain from engaging in any negative election activities, 8 candidate John P. O’Donnell, a Democrat running against a Republican incumbent, Justice Judith French, sponsored an ad claiming French was “in the pocket of big utilities” and had “supported an unfair ruling that gave American Electric Power $368 million of [Ohioans’] money.” The bar association asked O’Donnell to “immediately remove this ad from the air, and refrain from including statements that impugn the court’s integrity and imply that justice is for sale in [his] campaign materials.” 9 The bar added, “Ohioans are better served by learning about judicial candidate qualifications and experience.” The day after O’Donnell’s attack aired, the Ohio Republican Party began running an ad that promoted French’s 25 years of legal experience. French, who reaped the benefits of most of the TV spending, won the election with 56 percent of the vote. 10
Montana experienced an especially negative and contentious election this cycle as incumbent Justice Mike Wheat was challenged by former state solicitor general Lawrence VanDyke, marking the first time that Montanans saw ads sponsored by special-interest groups since the New Politics report began tracking TV spending in the state in 2008. Two national organizations, the Republican State Leadership Committee and Americans for Prosperity (AFP), lit up the airwaves with ads attacking Wheat. One ad paid for by AFP blasted Wheat for his “history of supporting extreme partisan measures,” citing examples such as Wheat’s support for a statewide sales tax, along with higher hunting and fishing fees. What the ad did not say, however, was that these were positions Wheat had taken in his previous job as a state senator, and not as a judge. Wheat fought back with a TV spot of his own, saying out-of-state corporations were “distorting the truth.” A trial lawyer-backed group called Montanans for Liberty and Justice also took shots at Wheat’s challenger, running ads asserting that VanDyke was “in the pocket of out-of-state special interests.” Wheat, who saw the most TV spending in his favor, ultimately won the race with 62 percent of the vote. 11