How to Ensure Impartial Justices in Arkansas? A Quandary

Judge Kemp
Judge Kemp

As possible reforms to judicial selection in Arkansas are debated, future Chief Justice Dan Kemp noted that current ethics rules create a quandary, and may invite revision, according to The Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. 

He pointed to ethics rules that say a judicial candidate ought not know who contributed to his or her campaign. At the same time, ethics rules require a judge to recuse from any case involving a campaign donation large enough to “raise questions as to the judge’s impartiality.” Kemp said, “It’s a difficult situation. I do believe we need to look at some possible reforms.”

After hundreds of thousands of dollars in political “dark money” were spent in this year’s Arizona Supreme Court election, there have been calls for tough disclosure rules. At the same time, some advocates have urged a switch to merit selection of judges. The Democrat-Gazette article outlined options that might be considered for reform, including a rules change adopted by the court’s justices themselves.

Arkansas: Debate Launched Over Ending Supreme Court Elections

2000px-Seal_of_the_Supreme_Court_of_Arkansas.svgThe state Senate Judiciary Committee debated, but arrived at no consensus, on Wednesday regarding proposals to end Arkansas Supreme Court elections and to require disclosure of spending in existing judicial races by outside groups.

“We’ll continue to study. This is just the beginning step in the process,” said Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, a Republican and the committee chairman, according to the Arkansas News Bureau.

There was advocacy on both sides of each proposal. Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, said earlier this month (see Gavel Grab) he would likely support an effort next year to move from judicial elections to a merit-based appointive system in the state; he made his remarks after a contentious and expensive state Supreme Court election. (more…)

Opinion: Eye on ‘Dark Money’ in Arkansas Judicial Elections

As Arkansas debates possible reform of its judicial elections, lawyer Scott C. Trotter of Little Rock argues that steps to ensure disclosure of “dark money” political spending ought to be considered.

In Arkansas Business, Trotter writes, “Many voters detest that our judicial elections can be influenced by substantial dark money spending with contributors undisclosed. This directly undermines public confidence in our judiciary. We should advocate state legislation to curb the dark money abuses through spending limits and disclosure of contributors in judicial elections.”

And serious discussion of turning to merit selection, instead of contested elections, ought to also take disclosure into account, he writes, as merit systems often include retention elections. To learn more about debate over Arkansas judicial elections and spending from anonymous donors, called “dark money,” see Gavel Grab.

News Article: Donors to Would-Be Judicial Candidate a ‘Mystery’

An unusual judicial election episode is unfolding in Nevada. Las Vegas Municipal Judge Catherine Ramsey is awaiting a decision from the state Supreme Court as to whether a recall effort against her is lawful. Meanwhile North Las Vegas City Attorney Sandra Douglass Morgan apparently has launched an active campaign for the seat, while the public is generally in the dark about her donors, The Las Vegas Review Journal reports.

An official in the Nevada Secretary of State’s office told the newspaper that after checking out relevant laws, the office concluded Morgan is not obliged to disclose her fundraising at this time. With its article, the newspaper published an image of what it said was a flier promoting a recent Morgan fundraiser at a hotel and casino. (more…)

‘Dark Money’ Gets Scrutiny, Debate in Montana

Last month, the Montana Growth Network,  a tax-exempt group that made advertising expenditures in a 2012 state Supreme Court race, was accused of failing to disclose certain spending and violated disclosure laws (see Gavel Grab). The office of state Political Practices Commissioner Jonathan Motl, who leveled the accusation, disclosed wealthy donors who funded the group.

Now there is more debate about drawing back the veil on hidden spending, as reflected by dual opinions published in The Flathead Beacon:

“Big, anonymous money has and is being used to affect our laws and our lives. Dark money suggests dark deeds. Let’s shine some light,” writes Joe Carbonari.

“People should know who is funding public campaigns and pass laws that protect the political process. Public officials’ decisions affect all of us, and most of us cannot afford to buy political favor,” writes Tim Baldwin.


Activists See Next Step for Clean Elections in West Virginia

The “unprecedented” conviction of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship (see Gavel Grab) presents a reminder of the need for more robust financial disclosure regulations on political donations, according to a commentary in the Charleston Gazette-Mail by Julie Archer and Natalie Thompson of WV Citizens for Clean Elections.

While Blankenship’s $3 million spending in a state Supreme Court race years go ultimately sparked a new law for judicial public financing of judicial elections,  the authors argue that money still has too great an influence in state elections and that current rules allow contributors to “hide their identity while influencing our elections.”

“Public financing and transparency of political spending are important safeguards for a true democracy,” the authors conclude. “The corporate elite, millionaires and billionaires should not be able to use their wealth (covertly or otherwise) to bribe our elected officials, and they should not get away with dictating what happens to the future of our state and the future of our people.”

Pulling Back the Veil on Funding of Judicial Crisis Network

A secretive nonprofit group called the Wellspring Committee gave more than $6.6 million last year to the Judicial Crisis Network, the Center for Responsive Politics reports, while citing Justice at Stake about JCN’s efforts to influence state judicial elections.

“The Judicial Crisis Network gave $528,000 to organizations that spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on judicial elections in Wisconsin and Tennessee,” according to Bankrolling the Bench: The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2013-14, coauthored by JAS and two partner organizations.

The Center for Responsive Politics has previously written about the Wellspring Committee and funds from it that were channeled into judicial election spending, and you can learn more from Gavel Grab. Under federal tax law, the Wellspring Committee is not required to disclose its own donors.

Group Suing Over Montana Disclosure Law Goes to High Court

A Montana nonprofit group has gone to the Supreme Court in its battle to be allowed to publish political ads without disclosing its donors.

Montanans for Community Development, the nonprofit group, initially sued in federal district court last year, and it amended its complaint in June after the Montana legislature passed into law a measure requiring that groups contributing to state elections disclose their donors (see Gavel Grab).

The group did not prevail in either federal district court or the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, according to an Associated Press article, and this week it asked the Supreme Court for an emergency stay of the district court’s ruling (with thanks to Election Law blog for the link).

Texas Ethics Commission Adopts Dark Money Disclosure Rule

To bring sunlight to political “dark money,” the Texas Ethics Commission has passed a rule to adapt to the greater role now played by politically active nonprofit groups and anonymous contributors.

According to the Houston Chronicle, the rule provides that “communications from a group like a 501(c)4 nonprofit will qualify as a political expenditure if it is distributed within 30 days of an election and is ‘susceptible to no other reasonable interpretation than to urge the passage or defeat’ of a candidate or a ballot measure.”

Some critics said the rule is too broad and exceeds what courts have generally permitted. But at, O. Ricardo Pimentel wrote, “Bravo to the Texas Ethics Commission for acting. Legal challenges may very well come. Texans should recognize them for what they are — advocacy that folks still be able to lurk in those political shadows.”

Opinion: How to Fix Dark Money in Judicial Races? With Disclosure

In an era of big-spending judicial elections, “dark money” election spending poses a real threat to fair and impartial courts and must be remedied with rigorous disclosure by litigants and lawyers whose spending has supported a judge, a Chicago Tribune op-ed says.

The op-ed was written by Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. “Litigants (and their lawyers) should be required to disclose their contributions to influence any judicial election. This is a straightforward rule that would apply to trial lawyers and corporate defendants, and everyone else before the bar,” Weissman contends. Once disclosure occurs, then a litigant will know when to ask a judge to recuse, he suggests. (more…)