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Originally published February 21, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 28, 2007 at 1:58 PM


Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist

Court campaign-fund debate is a fight for political power

Last fall's barnyard battle for a seat on the Washington Supreme Court has led to a proposal for public financing of appellate judicial...

Last fall's barnyard battle for a seat on the Washington Supreme Court has led to a proposal for public financing of appellate judicial campaigns. Seattle attorney Jenny Durkan spoke for the bill at a recent meeting of the Federalist Society, arguing that all the mudslinging undermines the public image of an impartial court.

Justice Richard Sanders noted that Durkan had done some of the slinging herself, having quickly raised money for ads attacking challenger John Groen.

The other side had started it, she said, with its attacks on Chief Justice Gerry Alexander. "Like Ronald Reagan," Durkan said, "I don't believe in unilateral disarmament."

Sanders prodded her some more. What about those ads? Would she defend them?

"Do I think the ads were good?" she said. "No. Would I do it again? Absolutely. Negative ads work."

So what to do? I would accept that the court is a political agency. Last year it came within one vote of having gay marriage proclaimed by judicial order. That's political, as are many of the court's other decisions.

It is true that private money may undermine the image of an impartial court. But it is a false image. Philosophically, the court is not impartial. Maybe it is better to ask candidates what their philosophies are, let each side duke it out so that the public can watch, and decide. As the Groen-Alexander fight showed, there is plenty of right money and left money to finance some really gaudy contests.

The proposed alternative is the supposedly impartial Judicial Independence Act. The bill, SSB 5226, is requested by Gov. Christine Gregoire and sponsored by Sen. Eric Oemig, the Kirkland Democrat lately famous for proposing to investigate President Bush.

Here is how their bill would work. As a candidate, you would have to choose between government financing and private financing. The government would give its candidates $84,836 — 60 percent of a justice's annual pay — for a contested primary campaign, and the same amount for a contest decided in November.

Groen, who campaigned entirely in the primary, said the state's sum is "not even close" to the amount needed for a statewide campaign. He spent far more than that. One large color postcard mailed to 475,000 voters cost him $130,000.

Under this proposed system, if you were an unknown figure challenging a sitting justice, you would essentially be forced to file as a private-sector candidate. You would raise your own money. When your spending topped $84,836, for every additional dollar you spent, the government would cut your publicly funded rival (or rivals) a check for the same amount. If you spent $50,000 on a fundraiser that grossed you $60,000, it would be a gain of $10,000 for you, but your opponent would bank a $50,000 check, because that is what you spent.

If a group friendly to you spent $100,000 to slime your government-financed opponent, your opponent would get a check for $100,000. If a group friendly to him did that to you, you would get nothing.

The government would match the spending on your side up to $678,691 in the primary and the same in the general election, if there remained a contest. Your opponent could continue collecting beyond $678,691 if there were any money left, and if there weren't, he would be freed to solicit his private donors. By that time, your private donors might be tapped out.

That is the system being proposed. Essentially, it would allow the "ins" a free ride up to $678,000, while the "outs" start at zero. It is a system, says former Sen. Slade Gorton, that is "of overwhelming benefit to the establishment" — which is to say, incumbents, which is to say, Democrats, since Washington is, in Gorton's words, "at best a one-and-a-half-party state."

This is a fight about political power — and over who may, and in what manner, be disarmed.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is

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