Brian Stumpe was heading into the homestretch of his quest to become a Cole County circuit judge with only $58.17 in his campaign bank account and nearly $13,000 in debt.
Stumpe, a Republican, is trying to unseat Pat Joyce, a Democrat who has served on the Cole County Circuit Court bench for 20 years. Unlike Jackson County and other urban areas of the state, Cole County and most of rural Missouri choose judges in partisan elections.
With a month to go before Election Day, it looked like Stumpe was going to be outspent by the incumbent, who still had $17,000 cash on hand.
Enter the Republican State Leadership Committee, an organization based in Washington, D.C., that’s part of a growing national trend of using increasingly politicized judicial campaigns as a method of influencing public policy.
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Over the course of a week, the national GOP group dropped $200,000 into Missouri. Half went directly to Stumpe. The other half remained in the group’s political action committee, which paid for a tie-dye fueled TV ad calling Joyce a liberal who “radical environmentalists think … is so groovy.”
So why is a national group so interested in a race for judge in a county with a little more than 75,000 residents?
Likely because Cole County is home to the state’s Capitol. Its judges handle lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of state laws and regulations, and litigation involving statewide ballot measures. That gives the three judges who preside in the 19th Judicial Circuit in Cole County an enormous role in shaping the business climate and government policies of Missouri as a whole.
It also puts a huge electoral target on their backs. Joyce is the only Democrat on the court after a group called Citizens for Judicial Reform spent $175,000 in 2006 to knock off 19-year incumbent Democrat Tom Brown.
“No one should be surprised that there would be a lot of interest in Cole County,” said James Harris, a veteran GOP political strategist and executive director of Better Courts for Missouri. “So many of the decisions made by Cole County judges have statewide impact. “
The $200,000, and the way it has turned the otherwise low-profile campaign on its head, has also rekindled a long-simmering debate in Missouri over how judges are chosen and the role of unlimited campaign contributions in state politics.
“The judicial branch is supposed to be impartial,” said Kansas City lawyer Steve Gorny, who sits on the executive committee of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys. “But now the very court that may have to determine the validity of our laws is subject to the influence of campaign money. That’s very concerning.”
Stumpe, who currently serves as Jefferson City prosecutor, did not respond to a request for comment. He recently told his local newspaper of the large donation, “I am pleased they see the importance of this race and have chosen to support my campaign.”
The Republican State Leadership Committee has vowed to spend millions of dollars across the country to elect small-government, pro-business judges. Jill Bader, the organization’s communications director, said the spending is part of an initiative it launched this year.
“Too often, voters are starved of information about judicial candidates up for election and forced to vote completely in the dark,” she said.
Among the Republican group’s biggest donors is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which according to disclosures filed with the Internal Revenue Service donated $1.1 million this year. Reynolds American, the parent company of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., gave more than $705,000 this year, and companies like Wal-Mart Inc., Eli Lilly and Co. and Citigroup Management Corp. chipped in more than $100,000 each.
Several Missouri companies also contributed, including Monsanto Co., Anheuser-Busch Cos. and Centene Management Co.
According to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, campaign fundraising in U.S. judicial elections more than doubled from $83.3 million in the 1990s to $206.9 million from 2000 to 2009.
“When even local courts aren’t safe from big-money pressure, every American should worry that their liberties could be for sale,” said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake, a nonpartisan advocacy group that considers the influx of money a threat to judicial independence.
Gorny said forcing judges to run in partisan elections — and thus raise money for their campaigns — creates an ethically murky situation.
“If a judge is ruling on a case and knows one party contributed to their campaign and one didn’t, can they be trusted to be impartial?” he said.
Gorny said all judges should be chosen using the system utilized for appellate and the state Supreme Court, where a special selection panel submits three nominees to the governor, who appoints one to the bench. The judges then stand for retention elections. The intent of the system is to reduce partisan politics in the courtroom.
Harris’ organization has long pushed to end that process, which he thinks is dominated by trial lawyers and is anything but nonpartisan.
“It’s an incredibly partisan system,” he said. “It’s just partisan behind closed doors.”
Elections force judges to interact with voters and explain their decisions, Harris said.
“Competition forces a dialogue,” he said.
Despite its support for judicial elections, Harris’ group has called on Joyce to return more than $14,000 in contributions from lawyers, many of whom are based in Cole County and could end up arguing in her court.
The official code of judicial conduct in Missouri allows candidates for judge, including incumbents, to solicit and accept campaign donations from lawyers who appear before them.
Harris has no problem, however, with the Republican State Leadership Committee’s donations.
“There’s a difference between a Republican committee supporting a Republican candidate and trial attorneys bankrolling a campaign,” he said.
Forcing judges to raise money from people they may see in court undermines the idea of an independent judiciary, Gorny said. But he points out Joyce’s largest donations were less than $500.
“Political donations create the impression of bias,” he said. “But a $200 donation isn’t the same as a $200,000 donation that if (Stumpe) wins will be the biggest reason he’s on the bench in the first place.”