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Archive for Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Ethics commission says campaign finance rules don’t apply to efforts to oust sitting judges

Group hoping to ‘Fire Beier’ doesn’t have to disclose donors

March 2, 2010, 1:02 p.m. Updated March 2, 2010, 5:04 p.m.

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— Kansas campaign finance rules and contribution limits don’t apply to activists who are unhappy with the state Supreme Court and trying to oust at least one justice in the November general election.

Groups participating in a “Fire Beier” campaign against Justice Carol Beier — along with those supporting her — don’t have to disclose their donors or what they spend. Beier and three other justices on the ballot must abide by the state’s code of judicial conduct, but it doesn’t contain specific limits on contributions.

The relatively loose rules add a twist to what’s shaping up as an unprecedented event in modern Kansas politics.

Justices are appointed by the governor, and voters are asked every six years whether to keep them on the bench. Campaigns for or against them are rare, and in 50 years, no justice has received less than two-thirds of the vote.

But in January, the anti-abortion group Kansans for Life launched a campaign to remove Beier and other justices because it didn’t like how the court has handled abortion cases. Beier wrote majority opinions in 2006 and 2008 strongly criticizing former Attorney General Phill Kline’s conduct in investigating abortion providers.

“The campaign itself, assuming one is created, would have no reporting responsibilities, no limits — no anything,” Carol Williams, executive director of the state ethics commission, said Tuesday. “I’ve had a lot of people who call who go, ’That has to be wrong.’ Well, no.”

Beier herself asked the ethics commission last month for a ruling on whether the state’s campaign finance act applied to her retention election. The answer? It doesn’t.

The act applies to state officers and candidates for state office. The definition includes the governor, legislators, State Board of Education members, district attorneys and even district court judges and magistrates. But it doesn’t mention Supreme Court justices or Court of Appeals judges.

The state’s code of judicial conduct says justices can’t set up a campaign committee more than a year before an election. It prohibits comments about cases pending “in any court” or promises that could jeopardize the justices’ impartiality.

Their campaign committees can solicit contributions but are directed to be “especially cautious” about donations from attorneys.

“Of course she’ll comply with the Canons of Judicial Conduct and any applicable laws,” court spokesman Ron Keefover said of Beier.

Mary Kay Culp, Kansans for Life executive director, said she’s not sure a lack of limits matters to her group because its political action committee has been handling the “Fire Beier” campaign and that committee does file finance reports.

Kansans for Life’s campaign is likely to include radio ads and requests in its newsletter for abortion opponents to vote against Beier and Justices Dan Biles, Marla Luckert and Lawton Nuss.

But Culp acknowledged other groups might pursue their own efforts. Asked whether they might spend tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, she said, “I can only hope so.”

Last week, Doug Johnson, the owner of O-ring Sales and Service Inc. in Lenexa, paid for a full-page, “Fire Beier” ad in The Topeka Capital-Journal.

He didn’t return a telephone message left at his office, but campaign finance records show he contributed $1,800 in May 2008 to an unsuccessful campaign to have Johnson County judges elected, rather than appointed.

Williams couldn’t explain why Supreme Court justices aren’t covered by the campaign finance act, other than perhaps it didn’t seem necessary when the law was written in 1968. Retention votes have been so low-key that the secretary of state’s office traditionally hasn’t even tabulated results on election night.

But Culp thinks the omission might have been intentional, with the lack of limits protecting Supreme Court critics.

“People who would try to influence retention elections would make themselves vulnerable to the most powerful organization in the state. It’s dicey,” she said.

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