By TIMOTHY C. BAILEY
CHARLESTON -- West Virginia Record readers should ask themselves this question: Why is a publication that has led the charge against attorney contributions in state supreme court elections now attacking the very public financing legislation that removes its influence?
The answer? Because the public financing bill approved by our Legislature takes contributions from billion-dollar corporations and their CEOs out of the equation, too, leaving the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals accountable to just one "special interest," the citizens of West Virginia. Our Supreme Court should belong to all of us equally -- not just the wealthy few who can afford to contribute to judicial campaigns.
For 140 years, the people of West Virginia have elected their judges and justices. It is this -- more than anything else -- which ensures the independence and integrity of the state judicial system, allowing it to safeguard the rights guaranteed in our state constitution and laws. When the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals determines the constitutionality of actions by the executive or legislative branches, it must be answerable first to the people of West Virginia. It is critical that the courts remain separate, distinctive and independent.
Public financing helps us achieve that. It will provide funding for judicial campaigns while also imposing fundraising and spending limits. Public financing also opens judicial races to a broader pool of candidates. Candidates who run now are either self-financed or financed by special interests on both sides—they must be either wealthy themselves or, if they have to raise money, they are seen as beholden to special interests.
Public financing will allow individuals to run who view the current system as cost-prohibitive, while also protecting the integrity of the court since justices would no longer be dependent on large campaign contributions. It also eliminates the possible influence of large campaign contributors who later appear before the court.
The legislation was applauded by the national Justice at Stake Campaign. In a news release JAS executive director Bert Brandenberg stated, "In 2004, West Virginia became a national symbol of the dangers of special-interest spending on court elections. This weekend the state moved to shed that unhappy legacy, becoming a national leader in preserving public trust in the courts ... Public financing will help restore public confidence in West Virginia's Supreme Court, because judges no longer must raise money from parties that appear before them in court."
And the money that Supreme Court candidates have had to raise in recent years is substantial.
According to Justice at Stake, fundraising by all Supreme Court candidates nationally totaled $206.4 million between 2000-2009 -- an increase of nearly 250 percent over the previous decade. In West Virginia for that same time period, direct candidate contributions totaled $7.4 million. Public financing gets this kind of money out of our Supreme Court elections.
It is a measure that is supported by West Virginia voters. A recent poll by Justice at Stake and the Committee for Economic Development found that 52 percent favored public financing -- a total that increased to 61 percent when the 2004 West Virginia Supreme Court election was discussed. Sixty-eight percent said that it was a "serious problem" that elected judges received contributions from those who appear before them in court. When Don Blankenship's multi-million dollar independent expenditure was mentioned, that figure climbed to 89 percent.
The legislation was applauded by business interests as well. Michael Petro, vice president of the Center for Economic Development, stated that "The business world depends on fair, stable courts that can settle disputes impartially. Everyone, citizens and businesses alike, deserves a fair day in court. Public financing takes judges out of the fund-raising business and helps make this ideal a reality. West Virginia's voters understand that judges should be able to focus on the law, not on dialing for dollars. Public financing is a major step in protecting fair, impartial courts."
Why then is The Record attacking legislation that will protect the integrity of West Virginia's highest court? Because that legislation puts a stop to the millions of dollars the owner of The Record, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, wants to continue to pump into West Virginia judicial elections to buy seats on the bench.
In its article, "Chamber of Horrors," the Multinational Monitor reported that "in 1988, the U. S. Chamber of Commerce created what it calls its Institute for Legal Reform (ILR) to pursue the Chamber's agenda of protecting corporations from liability ... the ILR has become a major funnel for major industry money moving into election campaigns . . . influencing judicial elections continues to be a growing focus for the Chamber. Forbes magazine called the effort a 'secret war on judges.'" (March/April 2005)
The National Law Journal reported that in 2004 the Chamber conducted so-called "voter education" programs with partner groups or on its own in 15 Supreme Court races in a dozen states, including Illinois and West Virginia.
Do you know what else Illinois and West Virginia have in common? Both states are home to publications called The Record -- U. S. Chamber funded publications masquerading as legitimate newspapers.
They are just one more part of the Chamber's propaganda campaign. The goal of The West Virginia Record is not advancing the best interests of West Virginians, but advancing the political agenda of the big-money corporate special interests that fund it.
And that money is increasing exponentially. According to recent articles in the Denver Post and the Washington Post, the U.S. Chamber spent $144 million in 2009, including $800,000 per day late last year to influence pending federal legislation. That amount was well beyond what was spent by the Democratic and Republican National Committees.
The Chamber spent $1 million in the recent Massachusetts U. S. Senate campaign, and is expected to spend more than $200 million this year to influence state and federal elections. The Denver Post reported that "The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is building a large-scale grassroots political operation that has begun to rival those of the major political parties, funded by record-setting amounts of money raised from corporations and wealthy individuals. (Denver Post – March 14, 2010; Washington Post – March 16, 2010)
With the passage of the public financing bill, West Virginia lawmakers have sent a clear message to these corporate special interests—the West Virginia Supreme Court belongs to the people of West Virginia. It's not for sale to the highest bidder.
Bailey is president of the West Virginia Association for Justice.