Getting government business out in the open is almost always a good idea. If Gov. Joe Manchin's new commission lets some sun shine into the state's court system, honest and law-abiding West Virginians will benefit.

Little will be gained from a study that identifies problems if no corrective action occurs. It will be up to the Legislature to consider the commission's recommendations and implement those it deems salutary. And it is up to us, the voters of West Virginia, to see that our representatives follow through.

What won't help are efforts to stifle free and vigorous debate and citizen participation in the election of judges.

A case in point: Timothy Bailey, president of the West Virginia Association for Justice, a plaintiffs' lawyer group, argues that "the biggest problem is not the elections themselves, but the enormous amount of money being spent in them." He recommends that the commission "look at public financing for the candidates and full disclosure of the monies funding third-party campaigns."

The ability to spend one's money in support of an issue or candidate is a fundamental component of free speech. Efforts to restrict such expenditures are a clear infringement of that right.

Public financing of elections, moreover, can be a cleverly disguised incumbent protection program. Incumbents often favor such schemes for two reasons: First, public financing relieves them of the nuisance of seeking financial support for their campaigns; and, second, restrictions on campaign expenditures disadvantage their opponents, who must outspend the incumbents to neutralize or overcome the many political advantages of incumbency.

Full disclosure of campaign funding makes sense, but why restrict it to "third-party campaigns," as Bailey suggests? Let's have full disclosure and timely reporting that allows us to see who's backing whom well before an election is decided.

Whatever changes ultimately are made in our state's court system, those changes should lead to increased public awareness and participation, not less. Let's not be fooled by seemingly high-minded suggestions that only exacerbate the influence of special interests.

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