This article originally provided by The Charleston Gazette

June 28, 2005

2004 Supreme Court race was nation’s most negative

Two-fifths of TV attack ads in battles for bench aired in W.Va., study says

By Paul J. Nyden
Staff writer

Last year’s Supreme Court elections in West Virginia were the most negative in the country, according to a report issued Monday.

The new study found that during The 2004 Supreme Court race in West Virginia, negative television ads were aired 5,096 times in the general and primary elections. Of those, 83 percent — five out of every six ads — were negative.

“The tone and content of the television advertising in this race ... were among the most negative and vitriolic seen anywhere,” wrote the authors of the study, conducted by the Justice at Stake Campaign and its partners, the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University Law School and the Institute for Money in State Politics.

Incumbent Justice Warren McGraw defeated Greenbrier Circuit Judge Jim Rowe in the Democratic primary, before losing to Republican lawyer Brent Benjamin in the general election.

The new study also found:

  • Nearly 10,000 television attack ads ran during Supreme Court elections in 15 states last year. Nearly 43 percent of those ads were aired in West Virginia.
  • McGraw was the first West Virginia candidate to ever raise $1 million for a Supreme Court campaign.
  • McGraw, Rowe, Benjamin and other candidates raised nearly $2.8 million for their own campaigns, a record for Supreme Court fundraising in the state.
  • Third-party groups raised millions more to pay for independent media campaigns.

    And For The Sake of the Kids, an independent IRS 527 political group, raised more than $3.6 million between August and November to attack McGraw with television ads, according to reports filed with the Internal Revenue Service.

    Massey Energy President Donald L. Blankenship contributed nearly $2.5 million, or nearly 69 percent of the group’s funding.

    Blankenship contributed $100,000 to another 527 political group called Citizens for Quality Health Care, which also ran ads supporting Benjamin and attacking McGraw.

    “The 2004 McGraw-Benjamin race drew national attention because it involved some of the nastiest mudslinging in the history of modern American court campaigns,” said Bert Brandenberg, executive director of Justice At Stake.

    “Without reforms, West Virginia is doomed to become a perennial target of national special-interest groups who want courts that will rule in their interest, not the public interest,” he said.

    The study found McGraw’s opponents spent 72 percent of all the money spent to buy television ads during the 2004 primary and general election races.

    Today, West Virginia is one of 38 states whose voters elect Supreme Court justices.

    Monday’s study warned of “a perfect storm of hardball TV ads, millions in campaign contributions and bare-knuckled special-interest politics ... descending on a rapidly growing number of Supreme Court campaigns.”

    The study’s examination of national trends revealed:

  • Last year, about $24.4 million was spent on television ads in state Supreme Court races, breaking the previous record of $10.6 million spent 2000.
  • Supreme Court elections in various states attracted record sums from business interests, reflecting the key role state courts often play in determining payments in corporate damages lawsuits.
  • Business contributions were higher than contributions from the legal community for the first time since Justice At Stake began compiling figures in 2000.

    The report warned, “Interest groups are bringing the culture wars into state court elections by demanding ‘positions’ on hot-button social issues from state court candidates,” such as abortion, gun control and gay marriages. The new report said some states are trying to reform their judicial elections, with backing from private citizens, judges, legislators and state Bar leaders.

    Last year, North Carolina became the first state to offer full public financing to qualified appellate court candidates. Nearly 64 percent of all campaign funds in two Supreme Court races came from public money.

    Several states have begun publishing nonpartisan voter guides to help voters.

    Justice At Stake predicts more major spending is likely to come in 2006, when seven states hold Supreme Court elections. In four of those states, more than one seat will be on the ballot.

    “The time for warnings has come and gone,” the report concludes. “Every state that elects judges needs to act, quickly, before the new politics of judicial elections undermines the impartiality and independence of their courts.”

    The complete report is available online at

    To contact staff writer Paul J. Nyden, use e-mail or call 348-5164.

  • Voter-Owned Elections

    Citizens for Clean Elections P.O. Box 6753 Huntington, WV 25773-6753 304-522-0246