Terrorist sympathizer. Friend to criminals. Pedophile supporter.
Nasty political ads using these innuendos may be familiar from the darkest corners of congressional and presidential politics—but these days they’re used to bring down judges too. State judicial elections, once sleepy and mostly cordial affairs, are in many cases now multimillion-dollar slugfests, thanks to an unprecedented tide of partisan money in play. Spending by outside groups in particular has soared over the last decade and a half, with much of the money funding these attack ads. Below are some of the most down and dirty used in recent campaigns. (For much more on how dark money is taking over judicial elections, see our explainer.)
“Sides with child predators”
Launched by a partisan group called Justice for All, this ad ran against North Carolina Supreme Court Associate Justice Robin Hudson during the May 2014 primary election. Hudson weathered the storm, and will face Republican Eric Levinson in November.
“Free a terrorist”
An ad attacking, Bridget McCormack, now a Michigan Supreme Court justice, accused her of helping to “free a terrorist.” Sponsored by the conservative Judicial Crisis Network, the ad ran 416 times at an estimated cost of $614,000 during the 2011-12 cycle, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
“Denying benefits to cancer patients”
The Michigan Democratic State Central Committee ran an ad attacking three Republican candidates for the Michigan Supreme Court during the 2011-12 election cycle. The ad ran more than 550 times at an estimated cost of $364,000.
“He called her ‘a total bitch'”
Bitter tensions among Wisconsin Supreme Court justices led to this ad, which blasts Justice David Prosser for calling Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson “a total bitch” in a 2010 incident, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. The ad, sponsored by the liberal Greater Wisconsin Committee, ran 134 times during the 2011-12 election cycle at an estimated cost of nearly $41,000.
“Protect our children, not sex offenders”
Another ad from the 2011-12 cycle in Wisconsin, this one accused Prosser of shielding a child molester from prosecution. Aired by the Greater Wisconsin Committee, the ad ran nearly 1,100 times at an estimated cost of $475,000.
“Sided with criminals”
This ad, run during the 2011-12 cycle in Kentucky, attacked then state Supreme Court Justice Janet Stumbo using a racially charged smear that juxtaposed the mugshots of two black convicts with images of pregnant white women. The opponent who defeated Stumbo, Will T. Scott, denied that the ad was racist; it ran 71 times at an estimated cost of $38,000.
“Imposing gay marriage”
The 2010 Iowa Supreme Court retention race made national headlines when three sitting justices were voted out after unanimously ruling in support of same-sex marriage. In 2012, conservative groups worked to oust another justice, David Wiggins, who had participated in the unanimous decision. This ad, sponsored by the National Organization for Marriage, ran 145 times during the 2011-12 cycle at an estimated cost of $86,000. (Wiggins prevailed, winning by 8 points.)