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Why Electing Judges Is a Bad Idea

Esquire's Charles P. Pierce comments that electing judges continues to be a bad idea--especially since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United that the government may not keep corporations or unions from spending money in support of candidates.

The Brennan Center for Justice has documented that $3.5 million in TV and radio ads have been bought so far this year regarding state supreme court elections in 10 states.

The problems include charter-school proponents giving to supreme-court candidates in Washington and Louisiana while lawsuits over the public funding of charter schools are pending. In Montana, one candidate has been criticized for "refusing" to give prison time to child pornographers and giving only a year sentence to man who repeatedly raped a 10-year-old; but those ads don't mention that those sentences involved plea bargains under the discretion of prosectuors.

Campaign Donations in Judicial Retention Campaigns 'Exist in a Dark Zone'

As five Kansas Supreme Court justices face retention elections this fall, donations to groups involved in the retentions are not subject to the same disclosure requirements as in other types of elections, The Topeka Capital-Journal's Jonathan Shorman reports. As a result, it is nearly impossible to know who is fundraising the most.

The Kansas Supreme Court has been the center of political fights in that state. Two years ago, conservative legislators tried to change how the justices are selected and more than 50 bills have been introduced since 2013 "that in some way sought to penalize the courts or strip their funds."

Super PACs Setting Record in Corporate Donations This Presidential Cycle

Corporate giving to super PACs, including by "ghost" corporations, is breaking records this presidential election cycle, The Washington Post's Matea Gold and Anu Narayanswamy report. More and more legal entities are being formed right before they make six- and seven-figure contributions to super PACs: "Many corporate givers this cycle are well-established hedge funds, energy companies and real estate firms. But a significant share of the money is coming from newly formed LLCs with cryptic names that offer few clues about their backers."

Election regulators are failing to take action. The divided FEC has not issued any new rules regarding corporate donations that could violate the federal ban on straw donations.

Campaign Cash Growing in Judicial Elections

Over $15 million was spent on the most recent election for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, including $12.2 million in direct campaign contributions and $3.5 million from two independent groups, Associated Press' Christina Almeida Cassidy reports. Almost $10 million was raised by the three Democratic candidates who were ultimately successful in winning seats on the court. Most of that money was raised from labor unions and trial lawyers.

Pennsylvania is not alone in seeing an infusion of contributions to state supreme court races. In 2014, spending on judicial elections tallied at over $34.5 million.

Court Rules California Charities Must Disclose Donors

California charities must disclose the names of their major contributors, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled last week. The Los Angeles Times' Maura Dolan reports that the Center for Competitive Politics lost the argument that its First Amendment right to the freedom of association is violated by the reporting requirement.

California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris ordered nonprofits to disclose donors who contributed more than $5,000 in a single year. The disclosures, however, were only to the attorney general's office, not to the public too.

Supreme Court Uphold Limits on Judicial Fundraising

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled, 5-4, Wednesday that states can bar judicial candidates from personally asking for campaign contributions, The Associated Press' Mark Sherman and Sam Hananel report. Chief Justice John Roberts, along with the four liberal members of the court, opined that '"judges are not politicians, even when they come to the bench by way of the ballot. A state may assure its people that judges will apply the law without fear or favor — and without having personally asked anyone for money.”'

The dissenting justices would have struck down Florida's ban under the First Amendment.

Even though Roberts was in the majority on the Citizens United decision that liberated corporations and unions from campaign spending limits, the AP reports that "this case could be seen to bring out his role as the leader of the judicial branch, even if he and other appointed federal judges are not affected by the case. Roberts at several points drew a distinction between candidates for judgeships and other offices."

Supreme Court Divided Over a Judge's Free Speech Rights

Reuters' Lawrence Hurley reports that the U.S. Supreme Court appeared to be closely divided over a Florida judge's challenge to a law that bars judicial candidates from soliciting campaign contributions. Notably, the case was heard just about five years after the Supreme Court decided Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who authored the Citizens United opinion, is likely to be the swing vote, Hurley reports. The liberal justices appeared to favor keeping a law that tries to safeguard the judiciary from political influence, while the conservative justices appeared to favor the First Amendment interests tamped down by the law.


Wisconsin Supreme Court Takes Up Appeals Over Governor's Campaign

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has accepted three cases arising out of an investigation into whether Governor Scott Walker's campaign illegally coordinated with the conservative groups supporting him, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Patrick Marley reports.

The appeals will likely be shrouded with some secrecy: "Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson and Justice David Prosser ... expressed concern that much of the court record is sealed and not available to the public — a highly unusual situation for most matters that go before the state's high court," Marley reports.

The investigation is being conducted under a "John Doe proceeding," a unique procedure in Wisconsin in which a judge, instead of a grand jury, hears secret evidence in order to decide if there is a basis to charge a criminal offense.

Separately, Marley notes that four of the justices have benefited from spending by the Wisconsin Club for Growth, which is one of the groups at the center of the investigation. One justice recused herself because her son works at a law firm representing one of the targets of the investigation.

Justice For Sale?

Mother Jones has a piece asking if Americans can get a fair day in court: "These days, as more candidates for the bench face rough contests—buffeted increasingly by outside money, thanks to the US Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United—state judges around the country often raise six- and seven-figure sums, mount statewide campaigns, and fend off attack ads from groups that don't disclose their donors. This trend has escalated over the last decade and a half as partisan groups realize that donating to judges can get them more influence, for less money, than bankrolling legislative campaigns."

Mother Jones notes that a Emory University study found that justices who received more money from business interests are more likely to vote in favor of businesses appearing before them and that an analysis by left-leaning think tank Center for American Progress suggested that justices would side with prosecutors when more money was spent on ads suggesting they were soft on crime.

In Supreme Court Race, Gap Exposed in Campaign Finance Rules

ProPublica's Robert Faturechi reports on how a push by a dark-money group to oust some Kansas judges running for retention has exposed a gap in that state's campaign finance laws. The group Kansans for Justice is encouraging voters to reject the retention of Supreme Court Justices Eric Rosen and Lee Johnson: "Even though the group has all the hallmarks of a political committee – it is soliciting contributions, plans to send mailers, and has an explicit electoral goal – it's not required to report anything about its leadership, donors or spending," ProPublica reports. Why? Supreme Court justices are not included in Kansas' legal definition of "state officers," so groups trying to influence races involving the justices don't have to make those sort of disclosures, ProPublica further reports.


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