The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law has issued a new report on the influence of money in judicial races, with plenty of attention to dark money spending in 2018 on a race for Arkansas Supreme Court.
We’ve written before about how dark money powered efforts to defeat Supreme Court Justice Courtney Goodson’s successful bid for re-election against David Sterling. Dark money accounted for 85 percent of the $3.4 million spent in total on the race and for 95 percent of the money spent in support of Sterling. Goodson won, unlike her race two years earlier for chief justice, where similar money poured in against her.
The money came from two sources — the Republican State Leadership Committee’s Judicial Fairness Initiative, which spent $2.3 million, and the Judicial Crisis Network, which spent $600,000.
The Brennan Center deems this non-transparent money, as I do. The RSLC disputes this because it reports its PAC contributions. But the Brennan Center notes it raises huge sums from corporations and dark money groups such as Judicial Crisis. In addition to spending directly against Goodson, Judicial Crisis gave the Republican group $3 million in 2018, including $500,000 in May when the only race being contested was the Arkansas Supreme Court race. The Republican group also received $100,000 from Walmart and $10,000 from the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce (reportedly unhappy with Goodson for not turning out to be the tort reform champion they’d hoped in backing her initial race for court.)
In noting that the outside groups swamped candidate spending, the Brennan Center wrote:
The groups accused Goodson of taking gifts from attorneys, hearing cases involving the gift givers and donors, and asking for a pay raise. JCN even created a website, greedygoodson.com, featuring the same allegations.
Sterling raised only $150,000, possibly predicting that
these groups would do the heavy lifting, and the attacking, in place of his campaign.
A new and noteworthy voice in the race was a group of
former judges and community leaders who had formed
the Arkansas Judicial Campaign Conduct & Education
Committee (AJCCEC) to respond to “false advertisements
and attacks” in judicial races. The AJCCEC’s rapid response
team determined that Goodson had not heard cases involving donors or gift givers, had recused herself from cases as appropriate, and had not asked for a pay raise. The team sent JCN and RSLC letters asking them to stop lobbing those allegations. In response, RSLC’s general counsel denied any wrongdoing and called the team a “sham.”
Even more unusual, Goodson used the rapid response
team’s findings in court to successfully block some of JCN’s
TV ads for being false and defamatory. One state judge
found that Goodson was likely to win her defamation suit
and stopped television stations in part of the state from
running the ads,67 though other judges in the state refused to grant Goodson an injunction and a federal judge refused her request to block similar ads by RSLC-JFI.68 Despite the attacks, Goodson won reelection with 55 percent of the vote.
Why rehash this now? Easy. I’ll be surprised if these groups don’t re-emerge in the race for an open Supreme Court seat in March. In that race to succeed Justice Jo Hart, Circuit Judge Chip Welch, a former trial lawyer, faces Barbara Webb, wife of Republican Party Chair Doyle Webb.