Election Spending Linked to Diversity on the Bench, Report Finds

A report issued by the Center for American Progress has found that elections impede the diversity of state judiciaries according to a recent Daily Kos article.

The study (see Gavel Grab) found a lack of diversity throughout the state judicial system, highlighting cases such as Alabama where every one of the 19 appellate court judges is white although only two-thirds of the population are white. Evidence also revealed that minority judges also had a harder time keeping their jobs and have lower re-election rates. “Since 2000, the overall reelection rate for incumbent Supreme Court justices in contested races is 88 percent. For white justices, that number is 90 percent. But black justices have been reelected 80 percent and Hispanic justices 67 percent of the time.”

The article points to the state of campaign finance as a potential explanation of the Center for American Progress’ findings: “The amount of money in judicial races has grown exponentially, especially since the Citizens United ruling opened the door to unlimited outside spending. Just last week, Pennsylvania’s election broke the spending record for Supreme Court races nationwide. Research shows that courts are more diverse when elections are publicly financed. The exorbitant spending in judicial races hurts voters and candidates alike.”

It concludes: “Diversity on the bench matters, especially in a system where minorities are disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system. The evidence suggests that race and gender have a significant impact on how judges rule.”

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 mySanAntonio.com, 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.”

JAS Welcomes Court Ruling on Campaign Contribution Limits

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed on Tuesday a lower-court order that struck down campaign contribution limits in Montana, and Justice at Stake applauded “a victory for fair and impartial courts and the people of Montana.”

jas_logoThe three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit remanded the case of Lair v. Bullock back to the lower court, finding that the lower court had not used the correct standard of review in its initial ruling. The ruling on Tuesday keeps in place campaign contribution limits set by Montana, which apply to elections including state judicial elections.

JAS Deputy Executive Director Liz Seaton said in a statement, “These limits provide essential protections in our justice system when judges are elected. It is important to prevent the kind of outsized donations by a single lawyer, group or party that run the risk of influencing courtroom decisions.” (more…)

Judicial Campaign Restrictions Subject of Ohio Lawsuit

An Ohio judge is suing state officials over campaigning restrictions which she says puts her at a disadvantage in elections.

Colleen O’Toole already announced her candidacy in the 2016 Supreme Court election, but restrictions on fundraising and other campaign activities prevent her from doing much early self-promotion. The Columbus Dispatch explains that judicial campaigns are prohibited from raising money until 120 days before the primary. O’Toole is suing Justice Maureen O’Connor and two others, claiming that this and other regulations violate her First Amendment rights.


Montana Sunshine Will Illuminate Dark Money in State-Wide Elections

Governor Bullock
Governor Bullock

Governor Steve Bullock of Montana signed the Montana Disclose Act this week, expanding  campaign finance regulations.

Sponsored by Republican Sen. Duane Ankney, the legislation requires groups that contribute to state elections disclose their donors, according to the Associated Press. “Beginning next election Montanans for state races will be able to accurately judge and understand the political attacks that have become so common in our elections and will have the opportunity to see who’s funding those attacks,” Bullock said.  “We’re saying if you’re going to spend money in our elections you need to just simply disclose who’s writing those checks.” The bill narrowly passed in a nearly party line vote, with 10 Republicans siding with all the Democrats.


Is Election Transparency Important to Democracy?

Campaign finance reform is about much more than limits to donations, MintPress News reports. Transparency International’s 2014 Corruption Perception Index says that the $3.7 billion spent on elections in the 2014 midterms has added to a “murky nexus” between money and politics.

Much of this money was spent by Super PACs, groups that are exempt from disclosure regulations. This loophole exists because Super PAC money is supposed to be directed to educational advertisements. This one requirement is easily circumvented, because transparency laws in many states only prohibit the use of so called magic words, such as “vote for” and “vote against.” Attack ads can therefore become pervasive without having to reveal the people who financed them.


Opinion: ‘Dark Money’ Attempting to Buy Judicial Elections

dark_money_email_imageAn opinion piece by Joan Claybrook in Chicago Business asks whether “dark money” campaign contributions can lead to the Illinois Supreme Court being bought.

Claybrook sites Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier as an example of a candidate who has benefited from “dark money.”

“Elected in 2004 in a campaign with record expenditures of dark money in which corporate interests spent almost $5 million to unseat a judge considered to be plaintiff-friendly, Karmeier then cast deciding votes reversing judgments in two controversial cases, Avery v. State Farm and Price v. Philip Morris,” the piece states.

Claybrook also points to the lack of recusal rules and transparency as a way that campaigns are being negatively impacted by non-disclosed money. She ends by saying, “State Supreme Courts must require all litigants to disclose campaign money they contributed directly or through third parties to a judicial election when a case is filed or answered. It’s the only way the people can be assured of an independent judicial system—one of the cornerstones of our democracy.”

FEC Chair Ravel Will Seek Sunlight for ‘Dark Money’

The newly chosen chairwoman of the Federal Election Commission, Ann Ravel, told the Center for Public Integrity that she will fight for transparency of what now is political “dark money,” regardless of the political party tied to it.

“The Kochs, they are not a problem to me, nor are their activities specifically anything I want to address,” Ravel said. “Dark money is a broader problem — a much broader problem. It’s a problem for those on the Democratic side as well as the Republican side. It’s not a partisan question for me.”

Is Disclosure Bad for Business?

With the five-year anniversary of the Citizens United decision less than two months away, campaign finance reform debates continue to heat up.

The Sunlight Foundation reports the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is concerned that a reform movement, including campaign spending disclosure, is infringing on its First Amendment rights. An event at the Chamber’s headquarters brought together a diverse group of speakers from the business community to discuss reform options that have been proposed, including the DISCLOSE Act and proposed rulemaking at the Internal Revenue Service and the Securities and Exchange Commission.


Ruling Could Bring Disclosure to Some Secret Election Money

In a long-running campaign finance case, Judge Amy Berman Jackson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia struck down a Federal Election Commission disclosure rule, saying it was too narrow, the Washington Post reported.

The FEC rule had undermined the intent of Congress “to enable voters to be informed about who was trying to influence their decisions,” the judge wrote. “A donor can avoid reporting altogether by transmitting funds but remaining silent about their intended use.”

The Los Angeles Times said Judge Jackson ruled that “groups that run election-related ads must reveal their donors” and her decision “could force disclosure of some of the secret money flooding into elections.” (more…)