Television ads for state Supreme Court races have popped up in an unprecedented 15 states this year, running up record tabs and upping the ante of what had long been generally sleepy affairs.

In West Virginia, a state Supreme Court justice running for re-election is dubbed a liberal in TV ads and accused of letting a sexual offender go free. And in Illinois, a high court candidate is labeled soft on crime because he gave probation to kidnappers who killed a 92-year-old woman.

The TV ads — a stark contrast to former races with a nonpartisan bent where candidates focused on their education and legal accomplishments — are discouraging advocacy groups who want to make such campaigns less political.

"All of the underhanded techniques that have been used in legislative and executive offices are going to spread to judicial campaigns unless there's a real concerted effort to stop them," said Deborah Goldberg, Democracy Program coordinator for the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice (search), a nonpartisan group that monitors TV spending on judicial races.

Just four years ago, only four states saw TV ads, but several were negative commercials so vicious they launched court cases that are still pending. Nine states had ads two years ago.

In Ohio, residents have received telephone calls implying a Supreme Court candidate has freed rapists and murders after only six months in jail. The target of the calls, Democratic Judge Nancy Fuerst, has asked her opponent to denounce the ads.

Candidate Judith Lanzinger, a Toledo appeals court judge, has no knowledge of the calls and therefore can't discuss them, said campaign spokeswoman Amy Jenkins.

Fuerst's campaign said it does not know who is making the calls, although it does not believe the group is associated with Lanzinger's campaign. But Fuerst believes a statement by Lanzinger would stop them, said Rick Brunner, Fuerst's campaign attorney.

In West Virginia, GOP challenger Brent Benjamin seized on Justice Warren McGraw's vote in a 3-2 decision that upheld an appeal by a sex offender seeking another chance at probation. The TV ad says McGraw cast the deciding vote "to set this reprehensible criminal free."

The Brennan Center called those ads "the nastiest in the nation." Steve Cohen, a Benjamin spokesman, said the campaign is "a referendum on Warren McGraw's record." McGraw did not immediately return several phone messages.

Two years ago, the cost of TV ad campaigns for state Supreme Court races from February through the second week of October was $975,000, according to a Brennan Center analysis. This year, it's already hit the $6 million mark.

"This is not an isolated incident — this is a developing national trend," said Jesse Rutledge, a spokesman for Washington, D.C.-based Justice at Stake, an advocacy group formed in February to monitor court races.

State Supreme Court candidates nationwide have raised about $26 million to date, a figure expected to exceed the $45 million raised in 2000, Rutledge said.

Four years ago, the Ohio Chamber of Commerce spent $4 million on ads trying to unseat Justice Alice Robie Resnick. One ad listed campaign contributions to Resnick and depicted a female judge changing her vote after a bag of money was dropped on her desk.

The Ohio Supreme Court is considering an appeal by the chamber of a judge's order to disclose its list of donors to that campaign.

The chamber has run one TV ad this year in Ohio, in support of Lanzinger. It is tame by comparison with past ads, detailing her background and record and never mentioning Fuerst.

"The more information people get, the more comfortable they'll get casting an educated vote in the race," said Linda Woggon, the chamber's governmental affairs director.

In Illinois, business groups and trial attorneys are pouring money into a campaign for the state's high court that has already smashed state fund-raising records for a general election.

Candidates in Illinois' fifth appellate district have raised $2.4 million to date, a number that doesn't cover fund-raising for most of the summer and early fall.

"It's high stakes for the political parties," said Cindy Canary, director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. "It's not candidates going to the county fair and raising money."

The state bar association for the first time announced it would monitor judicial campaigns and speak out against attack ads by outside groups.

The "campaigns are being so negative and mean-spirited they will affect the integrity of the judicial system," said Thomas Johnson, an attorney and chairman of the monitoring committee.