I just had to say a few words about state Supreme Court Justice Richard B. Sanders’ guest column yesterday in the Seattle Times: “Judge-election system works well.”
Um… no it doesn’t. For some unfathomable reason, WA is one of just four states that elects judges, yet places no campaign finance limits on judicial elections.
But if some elites of the Washington State Bar Association and political insiders have their way, this all could change. First on the agenda is capping individual contributions to judicial campaigns. Second is eliminating judicial elections altogether.
I’ll start with his second point first… nobody is talking about eliminating judicial elections altogether. Well… okay… maybe I have… but nobody of any significance is talking about it, as such a reform just wouldn’t fly with voters. (FYI, I would prefer a system of judicial appointments, with regular retention votes.)
Second (or is it first?), his attempt to pejoratively paint supporters of contribution limits as “elites” and “political insiders” is simply dishonest. I can tell you that I have heard talk of a possible initiative that would subject judicial campaigns to the same limits as other offices… and it hasn’t come from the Bar Association. It’s coming from citizen activists who are justifiably concerned about the fact that median spending on judicial races has more than doubled since 2000, with no end in sight.
As I’ve pointed out before, the BIAW spent over half a million dollars during the past two campaigns electing Justice Jim Johnson… nearly $200,000 in 2004. Now that one business group has bought itself a seat on the state Supreme Court, you can bet that other business groups will want to buy one too. And the same national organizations that launched a multimillion dollar smear campaign against Deborah Senn in the last election, is also spending tens of millions of dollars a year electing conservative, pro-business judges across the nation. We are only beginning to see the inevitable explosion in judicial campaign spending.
Justice Sanders’ arguments are filled with red herrings, especially his contention that contribution limits would encourage “independent expenditures.” There are limits on the content of independent expenditures, making them less useful to a campaign than direct contributions… but that’s beside the point. The real issue here is not whether contribution limits are good or bad, but whether there is any practical reason why judicial candidates should be exempt from the same campaign finance restrictions as every other elected official.
Indeed, one could argue that judicial campaigns are more in need of contribution limits. In its talking points on campaign finance reform, the King County Bar Association highlights the disturbing example of Cruise Specialists, Inc., which made political contributions totaling $112,000 in 2004, all of it to Justice Johnson’s campaign. The founder and president of the company was a defendant in a lawsuit, and found liable to the plaintiff for $18 million. The judgment was affirmed by the Court of Appeals, in a decision written by Judge Mary Kay Becker… Johnson’s campaign opponent.
It can’t be said for certain that the Lantermans gave $112,000 in order to defeat the judge who had affirmed a major jury verdict against them. But it is the case that these are the only contributions by this company in 2004 and that the contributions were made after the primary when it was clear that Judge Becker would face Johnson in the general election.
The CSI contributions send a chilling message to judges who must decide cases involving wealthy litigants. They illustrate the possibility that a disgruntled litigant can target a sitting judge. Campaign finance limits should be extended to judicial races for this reason if for no other. Judges must be insulated from the threat of overwhelming campaign contributions to their opponent as a method of revenge.
I find Justice Sanders argument that contribution limits would make judicial elections even more prone to influence from wealthy individuals and special interests to be convenient, but silly. I sincerely hope his judicial decisions are better reasoned that his op/ed pieces.