Rep. Andrew Collins of Little Rock is pushing to shine a light on secretive spending in judicial campaigns.

UPDATE: The bill passed out of committee on a voice vote and will go to the full House next.

Huge sums of money from anonymous sources are determining the winners and losers in appellate court races in recent years. A bill going up before lawmakers today would change that by shining light on dark money in Arkansas judicial elections.

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House Bill 1899 by Little Rock Democrats Sen. Clarke Tucker and Rep. Andrew Collins is set to debut in the House Judiciary Committee at 2 p.m.

“The bill was prompted by the overwhelming influence of anonymous spending in recent years in appellate judicial races in particular,” Collins explained. While judicial candidates themselves spent $1 million on TV ads during that time period, outside groups spent $3 million. “Dark money is completely dominating the discourse,” he said.

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The money (and the influence it buys) are especially problematic because there’s no way to know who’s behind it and what their motivations might be. HB 1899 will force groups spending big money on judicial elections to disclose who they are. The bill applies only to noncandidate expenditures, a special category for appellate judicial races. Noncandidate expenditures come from someone besides the candidates’ own campaigns, and might not state clear support for a candidate but can strongly suggest it. The issue is that when ads avoid express advocacy — telling voters specifically to vote for or against someone — current law requires no disclosure about the people who paid for it.

Tucker offered example after example of recent instances where the candidates with the largest buckets of mysterious cash behind them pulled out a win.

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In 2014 in their race for a seat on the Supreme Court, Justice Robin Wynne spent approximately $12,460 on television ads and candidate Tim Cullen spent approximately $31,750. But the Law Enforcement Alliance of America, an out-of-state conservative gun rights group with undisclosed donors, spent $164,560 to help elect Wynne, who won with 52% of the vote.

Justice Courtney Goodson has both benefitted and suffered at the hand of big, anonymous spending in judicial races. Goodson lost a chief justice race in 2016 to Dan Kemp, who got a leg up from a shadowy group called the Judicial Crisis Network that spent $554,840 in attack ads against Goodson. In 2018, Goodson was again a target of the Judicial Crisis Network, but so was Kenneth Hixson, one of her opponents in the three-way race. Hixson lost, and Goodson managed to edge out David Sterling in the runoff despite ads against her that described an Italian vacation she took on a donor’s yacht. “That was the first time the candidate that dark money was advocating for did not win,” Tucker said.

You can watch the House Judiciary Committee do their thing here.

No one knows what will happen with this bill by Collins and Tucker, but the passage on the Senate side of a bill that goes in the opposite direction doesn’t bode well. SB 535, sponsored in the Senate by Breanne Davis and in the House by David Ray and Austin McCollum, says no public agency could release information about “membership, volunteers and financial donors to 501(c) nonprofit organizations” that happened to be filed with state agencies. 501(c)4s are commonly referred to as dark money groups because they’re not required to disclose their donors.

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