Judicial Spending Blitz in Arkansas Spurs Calls for Reform

Judicial Spending Blitz in Arkansas Spurs Calls for Reform

(YouTube/Judicial Crisis Network)


A $1.1 million corporate spending blitz that helped defeat two candidates for the Arkansas Supreme Court has prompted the state legislature to call for reforms that would either eliminate judicial elections, ban undisclosed “dark” money in those races, or both.

The two candidates in question, Supreme Court Justice Courtney Goodson and Little Rock attorney Clark Mason were defeated Tuesday after heavy spending by two conservative groups with close ties to the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, and by a variety of corporate interests. The groups lined up against Goodson and Mason in an attempt to shift the state’s high court, which is one of the country’s most liberal, in a more conservative direction.

The calls for reform were noteworthy because they came not just from Democrats, but from the state’s GOP governor, Asa Hutchinson. "Regrettably, a winner in yesterday's campaign was dark money," said Hutchinson at a political event Wednesday. He went on to say that he’d support a ballot initiative that would require state judges to be appointed, not elected, to their positions on the bench.

In response to Tuesday’s election, Democrats in the state’s house and senate called on Hutchinson to place a package of campaign-finance and ethics reform measures on the agenda for the legislature’s special session next month, including legislation to require all outside groups to disclose their donors.

One of the conservative groups behind the ads, the Judicial Crisis Network, is a tax-exempt social-welfare group that isn’t required to disclose its donors. The Judicial Crisis Network alone spent more than $600,000 on the chief justice race, attacking incumbent Justice Courtney Goodson as an insider and a “rubber stamp” for President Barack Obama’s policies, the Associated Press reports. Goodson ultimately lost to her challenger, Circuit Judge Dan Kemp, whom the groups supported for his conservative record.

The network has deep ties with other politically active nonprofit groups, in the past serving as a funding pipeline for the Wisconsin Club for Growth, the America Future Fund, and other groups associated with the Koch brothers.

The other conservative group that spent heavily in the recent judicial race is the Republican State Leadership Committee, a tax-exempt GOP political organization known as a 527 group, which has received funding from business lobbyists and such major corporations as Arkansas-based retail giant Walmart. That group spent more than $500,000 on the chief justice race and on another open-seat race in which it attacked judicial candidate Clark Mason. One attack ad accused him of charging clients high fees, calling him “Clark ‘Ka-Ching’ Mason.” Circuit Judge Shawn Womack, a former Republican state legislator whom the groups backed because of his conservative bona fides, beat Mason.

Judicial watchdogs warn that the judicial spending spike in Arkansas is not an anomaly. Outside spending in judicial elections has more than tripled over the past decade. "The high spending, out-of-state money and harsh attack ads we've seen in this year's Arkansas Supreme Court race make it the latest example of some of the worst trends in judicial elections across the U.S.," Susan Liss, executive director of watchdog Justice at Stake, told the AP.

Thirty-eight states install judges via popular elections, as opposed to judicial appointments. These elections have not been spared from the repercussions of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. FEC ruling, which deregulated independent political spending. In 2013, outside spending in judicial elections reached $10.1 million—accounting for 29 percent of total spending, according to a report from Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice.