A full-page ad that ran in a Topeka newspaper last week is just a taste of what may be in store for the state as it heads toward a retention vote for its top judges in November.
The ad placed by a Lenexa businessman focused on Kansas Supreme Court Justice Carol Beier’s participation as a judge for a moot court competition in California. The competition was sponsored by the Williams Institute, which is part of the UCLA School of Law.
Judging moot court presentations is common practice for judges, who see it as part of their professional duty to help train the next generation of attorneys. The competition isn’t judged in the same way as a trial. The winners are chosen on the basis of how well they present their case, not its legal merits. In moot court, judges are more like teachers than judges.
Nonetheless, Doug Johnson thought it was worth buying a full page ad to inform voters of Beier’s participation in the event. Not coincidentally, Beier faces a retention vote in November, and Johnson has run three other ads attacking her for the Kansas Supreme Court’s 2005 school funding decision.
In last week’s ad, Johnson concentrated on the fact that the Williams Institute focuses on sexual orientation law and public policy and that the case argued in the moot court competition concerned medical treatment of transgendered individuals. Johnson told a Topeka newspaper that he wasn’t saying Beier did anything wrong. “I just think the public has a right to know that.”
So he ran a full page ad filled with innuendo. His is the only name on the ad, but others could have contributed money to pay for the ad — and, according to current state law, people who run ads targeting Beier or any other Supreme Court or Court of Appeals judge facing a retention vote will never have to report where the money came from or how it was spent.
The gap in state campaign finance laws was discovered after Kansans for Life, an anti-abortion group, launched its “Fire Beier” campaign targeting the justice for the court’s handling of abortion-related cases. It had gone largely unnoticed because judicial retention elections had never attracted this kind of attention or publicity.
It’s bad enough that state laws allow unlimited spending for “issue” ads not paid for by a candidate’s campaign. The loophole that leaves judge retention votes out of campaign finance reporting laws means that voters also will never know who was contributing money — or why — to try to influence votes in those races.
That is, unless state legislators act quickly to close the legal gap. Legislation that would do that has been introduced in the Senate and shouldn’t be lost in the shuffle as the session winds down. The fact that Beier’s retention vote has drawn so much attention and money so early in the election cycle makes it imperative that donors — on both sides — be held accountable for their expenditures and positions in retention elections.