Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Note on the State Supreme Court Election

from the inbox:

Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts (PMC) today announced that the 2009 Supreme Court election between Republican Joan Orie Melvin and Democrat Jack Panella is likely to set fundraising and spending records. Final figures are not yet available because fundraising can continue until the end of the year. The numbers to date are staggering: the Supreme Court election cost at least $4.5 million dollars. PMC believes the total is significantly higher, though it is difficult to determine with certainty because of gaps in our campaign finance reporting requirements. Who’s footing the bill? Not just the usual suspects – lawyers, law firms, businesses, unions and political action committees that contribute to the candidates -- but also some well-funded third parties, most notably the state Republican Party.

The candidates have raised and spent over $3.6 million to date: $2,646,735 for Judge Panella and $940,224 for Judge Orie Melvin. Fundraising by judicial candidates is of concern because perceptions are created that money might buy favor in later court cases. This year, the fundraising seemed lopsided, especially because of particularly large contributions -- totaling $1 million -- to the Panella campaign from the Committee for a Better Tomorrow, the PAC of the Philadelphia Association of Trial Lawyers. But the direct contributions to candidates’ campaigns was only part of the money story.

Executive Director Lynn Marks explained, “During the campaign, the candidates themselves argued about money and who was funding the other’s campaign. This raised a red flag for the public. It became clear that examining the fundraising and spending by the candidates’ campaigns would not give the whole story of the financing of the 2009 Supreme Court election.”

PMC therefore researched who else was spending money for the Supreme Court election. We found that the state Republican Party outspent its candidate’s own campaign in support of her election. The television campaign for Judge Orie Melvin was funded largely by the state Republican Party, to the tune of at least $975,849, based on data collected by Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG), a nonpartisan media research organization. By contrast, the Panella campaign funded its own television buys.

Political parties and PACs are not required to identify specifically on their expenditure reports the candidates for whom money was spent. Therefore, the total amount the political parties spent on their candidates cannot be determined for certain without further inquiries of the state parties. But reports reveal that from January 1, 2009 until November 23, 2009 , the state Republican Party spent over $5 million; the state Democratic Party reported spending $1,828,851. An additional $85,000 was spent on media advertising by the Republican Senate Committee between September 15, 2009 and October 19, 2009 (the only time period for which that PAC was required to report its expenditures).

The candidates’ spending and the CMAG data for the state Republican Party are verifiable and add up to approximately $4.5 million. But it seems reasonable to assume that a good part of the remaining $4 million in Republican Party spending and nearly $2 million in Democratic Party spending also went to the Supreme Court election. Adding in the spending by the state parties and other political entities such as the Republican Senate Committee could add millions to the cost of the election. PMC’s Marks opined, “Pennsylvanians have a right to know what the Supreme Court election cost; we urge the campaigns and the political parties to give a full accounting of their spending.”

Pennsylvania had the nation’s most expensive Supreme Court elections in the 2007-08 election cycle, and the available data is leading elections experts to predict that Pennsylvania will earn that title again for 2009-10. According to Charles Hall of the Justice At Stake Campaign, a nonpartisan national group that works to protect courts from special-interest influence, “In the last three years, Pennsylvania has become the new Ground Zero of high-price Supreme Court politics.”

As PMC’s Marks explained, “Pennsylvanians should not take pride in leading the nation in spending for judicial elections. Each dollar raised and spent raises yet another doubt in voters’ minds about whether or not justice is for sale.”

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