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Public financing proposed for Supreme Court races

Roger Alford

Fearing wealthy donors might unduly influence Supreme Court races, a Kentucky lawmaker is pushing a longshot proposal that would create a public financing system for would-be justices on the state's highest court.

State Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, said the legislation is needed in the wake of a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision, known as the Citizens United case, that paved the way for corporations, unions and wealthy individuals to contribute as much as they want to independent political groups to support candidates and causes.

"It's conceivable that special interests could buy Supreme Court justices and put them on the bench," Wayne said. "We think that our system is vulnerable to this type of purchase of Supreme Court justices."

Proponents of public finances for justices contend that unscrupulous donors could have a broader impact on the Supreme Court with seven seats than on the state Legislature with 138 seats. They insist justices should be shielded from that influence.

In the Citizens United case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that independent spending by corporations does "not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption."

Wayne pointed to West Virginia as an example of big money influencing a state Supreme Court race.

The West Virginia case involved more than $3 million spent by the chief executive of Massey Energy Co. to help elect state Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin. At the same time, Massey was appealing an $82 million verdict in a dispute with a local coal company. Benjamin refused to step aside from the case, despite repeated requests.

The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ruled that elected judges must step aside from cases when large campaign contributions from interested parties create the appearance of bias.

Wayne said getting a floor vote in the House on his bill would be considered a victory, even if that vote fails.

"It's a new idea for Kentucky, and new ideas often take time to be understood," he said.

The proposal has plenty of critics, including tea party activist David Adams, who sees the legislation as an attempt to censor free speech. Adams said he believes all companies, not just media firms, have the right to weigh in on political races.

"We won't get better Supreme Court justices by limiting campaign contributions," Adams said. "The more we try to manipulate free speech the less free it becomes."

State Rep. Tom Riner, D-Louisville, said the measure is worthwhile because it would help to "ensure the integrity of the judiciary."

"Big money has become more prominent in the judiciary, just as it has in all other state and federal elections," Riner said. "This bill eliminates that dependence of judges on the campaign donations."

The proposal would allow Supreme Court candidates to opt for the public financing, which they would qualify for after raising $10,000. The bill requires that candidates have to raise $5,000 in small contributions from at least 200 donors to quality for public finances.

Once they qualify, candidates could tap into a "Clean Judicial Elections Fund." Money for that fund would come from a check off on state tax returns and from private contributions.

"No one is required to participate," Riner said. "It's a voluntary decision they have to make. But it sets a person apart as an advocate for clean elections. That's a good thing to be said about a candidate."

The Associated Press