Supreme Court races top in nation for contributions

OLYMPIA - Washington state's three Supreme Court races last year took in more money from third-party groups than any high court campaigns in any other state, according to a national report being released today.

Washington was also the only state in the nation where every campaign television ad was paid for by outside groups, according to the report from the Washington, D.C.-based Justice at Stake Campaign, a nonpartisan group that seeks impartial, independent courts.

"These are campaigns that were completely controlled by interest groups," said Jesse Rutledge, the group's spokesman.

"You find yourself in a situation where the entire campaign is defined by a series of special interest groups, on the left and the right. The candidates themselves lost any ability to deliver their own message."

In the end, the court's three incumbents were re-elected, but only after millions were spent on both sides.

Early in the campaigns, third-party groups lined up behind the candidates. The powerful Building Industry Association of Washington backed Republican state Sen. Stephen Johnson, who ran against Justice Susan Owens, and attorney John Groen, who took on Chief Justice Gerry Alexander. Citizens to Uphold the Constitution - a coalition of groups that included tribes, labor unions and trial lawyers - backed Owens and Alexander. Justice Tom Chambers was endorsed by both the BIAW and Citizens to Uphold the Constitution.

Washington state already has nonpartisan court races and recently enacted campaign finance limits for judicial candidates, but critics have been most worried about the amount spent by political action committees.

While direct donations to campaigns are limited, there's really no limit to independent spending to support or oppose candidates, like attack TV ads or mailers sent to voters, so long as it isn't coordinated with the candidate's campaign.

But many said that the campaign limits on candidates made the third-party spending inevitable.

"What ends up happening is that by limiting what judges' campaigns can raise, you force independent groups to spend their own money on TV ads instead of giving to the candidate," said Tom McCabe, BIAW's executive vice president.

According to Justice at Stake's analysis, third-party interest groups spent at least $8.5 million to support or oppose candidates in seven states. Of that amount, nearly $2.7 million was spent in Washington state, more than any other.

BIAW spent more than any other group in the state on the elections, but its officials have argued that it has no more power over judicial elections than other organizations: Despite all of the money BIAW spent, neither Groen nor Johnson were elected.

"From a philosophical standpoint, it is about the right to free speech," McCabe said. "People, groups, unions, business organizations all have the right to vocally express their opinions in politics."

But Rep. Shay Schual-Berke, D-Normandy Park, said that this year's spending created a concerning precedent.

"We can predict with certainty that there will be an escalating war of special interest campaign money," she said. "The genie is out of the bottle. There will be no going back."

For the third time in the last four election cycles, Supreme Court candidates in Washington state set fundraising records, with six candidates raising more than $1.8 million.

Candidates in six other states raised more money: Alabama, Kentucky, North Carolina, Nevada, Ohio and Texas.

But Rutledge said that when the amount raised by the candidates is combined with the money spent by third-party groups, Washington state moves to No. 2, only behind Alabama, where 15 candidates combined to raise $13.4 million, and a third-party group spent nearly $1 million on TV ads.

Based on the spending on the races, Gov. Chris Gregoire had called for public financing of some judicial races and had initially included $4.4 million in her two-year state budget proposal for the pilot project. But the measure was blocked in the Legislature.

"I wanted us to have a debate and we did," Gregoire said after the legislative session ended last month. "I don't think this issue is done or gone."

Gregoire's spokeswoman, Holly Armstrong, said the governor would evaluate the report.

Armstrong said the report "will help keep the conversation going" on public financing and judicial races.

A handful of states, including Arizona and Connecticut, have public financing for statewide and legislative races. North Carolina and New Mexico - which just passed a law this year - are the only states that have public financing for appellate court candidates.

Illinois and Wisconsin are still considering similar measures, Rutledge said.

Schual-Berke had sponsored the public financing measure in the House this year, and said she's already working on how to approach it during next year's legislative session, which begins in January.

Three Supreme Court justices are up for re-election in 2008.

"The issue is far from dead," Schual-Berke said. "But I'm afraid it's going to take the next round of elections for us to see the fuller impact of unrestricted special interest financing."

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