Group may challenge publicly financed election

Manchin

CHARLESTON (Legal Newsline) -- Before West Virginia ever holds a publicly financed election for two Supreme Court seats in 2012, the law allowing it might have to survive a challenge in court.

That's because the Center for Competitive Politics, a group that opposed the legislation before it was signed into law by Gov. Joe Manchin, recently told The Associated Press that it is considering a challenge.

"We oppose taxpayer financing as a matter of policy," CCP spokesman Jeff Patch said, according to the AP.

"Money does not get out of politics. It just goes in different directions. We just think this is a waste of time and resources."

On March 11, CCP wrote Manchin to express its disagreeance with advice given to state lawmakers by the group Justice at Stake.

Justice at Stake gave its blessing to the legislation.

"Justice at Stake's legislative advice on this pilot program amounts to a lot of hot air and wishful thinking," CCP President Sean Parnell said.

"If the legislature accepts this phony advice, it would be the legal equivalent of directing the state to hold out a tin cup and beg for a lawsuit in these troubled economic times."

The pilot program will be used for two Supreme Court elections in 2012. Candidates will receive $200,000 for a contested primary and $350,000 for a contested general election.

The state Supreme Court race of 2004 between current Justice Brent Benjamin and then-Justice Warren McGraw received national headlines. Two groups -- one financed largely by Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship and one financed largely by trial lawyers -- spent millions of dollars on advertising.

The new legislation provides rescue funds to candidates if outside spending reaches a certain level.

Justice at Stake says the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, of which West Virginia federal courts are a part, upheld the use of rescue funds in publicly financed elections in North Carolina, one of the three states with such a program.

CCP agrees, but says the legislation is still on tricky footing because of a more recent U.S. Supreme Court decision "struck down the so-called Millionaires' Amendment in the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, which allowed candidates special fundraising privileges if their opponent spent personal funds above a certain amount on their own campaign."

Two federal judges in Connecticut and Arizona have also rejected publicy financed elections in those states.

"If West Virginia decides to continue electing its judges, the constitution and Supreme Court precedent mandates that it afford candidates and voters full First Amendment rights in their elections," Parnell said.

Justice at Stake spokesman Charles Hall said in the AP report, "They're trying to take a limited set of circumstances, and stretch it into a broad principle that overturns more than 30 years of federal court rulings. They are a long way from the finish line."

More Stories