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David Postman has covered politics and government for The Seattle Times since 1994. He's a frequent guest on radio and television, and previously covered politics for The News Tribune in Tacoma, the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Public Radio Network. He also writes a column every Friday.

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December 19, 2006

Gregoire wants public financing of judicial campaigns

Posted by David Postman at 12:19 PM

Gov. Christine Gregoire proposed today a pilot program for public financing of judicial campaigns.

She wants to use $4.4 million so "judges can be free from money influence — real or perceived," according to material released by her office this morning. What the governor calls the "Judicial Independence Act," or JIA, is not yet in final form. But a memo from her policy office outlines how it would work:

To qualify for the JIA, candidates must raise a specific amount in qualifying contributions. Qualifying contributions must be between $10 and $50, and must come from individuals (not PACs, unions, or corporations). Contributors must designate the contribution as a qualifying contribution, and must submit name and address along with the contribution. Only campaign volunteers can collect qualifying contributions.

• Court of Appeals: Must raise at least $2,000 (and no more than $5,000) from at least 100 contributors.

• Supreme Court: Must raise at least $10,000 (and no more than $25,000) from at least 500 contributors.

There would also be public money available for exploratory campaigns.

Candidates would have to agree to a clean campaign code to get the money, though. That would include a prohibition on "disparaging or disrespectful communications." Candidates could respond to attacks from opponents.

The program would provide a minimum amount of public financing and then additional matching funds if an opponent who is not participating raises more than the minimum. The matching funds could also increase for a candidate if independent expenditures are used to favor another candidate.

The proposal is based on public financing programs similar to what is in place in Arizona, Maine and North Carolina, which has a specific public financing plan for judicial candidates.

Here's the explanation from the Arizona commissions FAQ page:

Question: How exactly does the Clean Elections Act work?

Answer: Candidates who choose to participate in Clean Elections (commonly called, participating candidates) collect a set number of $5 qualifying contributions (donations) that can qualify them for Clean Elections funding: Two-thirds of Clean Elections funding comes from surcharges on civil and criminal fees; the remainder comes from a voluntary $5 state income tax check-off, a dollar-for-dollar income tax credit for up to $500, civil penalties imposed on candidates for violation of the Commission rules & policies and the $5 qualifying contributions. To qualify for funding, participating candidates must adhere to strict spending and contribution limits and gather $5 qualifying contributions from registered voters in their districts.

During this year's campaign, Gregoire complained about what she said was special interest money pouring into campaigns for Supreme Court challengers. To counter that, she decided to raise money for incumbent justices. She solicited donations from political heavyweights and gave at least $25,000 from a PAC she controls.

In Arizona, there is a separate citizens group that monitors the Clean Election program. The group tracks which candidates participate in public financing and says that nine of 11 statewide offices, including governor, are held by Clean Election participants. There are also citizen groups in Maine and North Carolina.

In November, California voters defeated a ballot measure that would have created a similar system. In a story before the election, the San Francisco Chronicle looked at Arizona's experience and reported:

Six years into its brave new world of publicly financed campaigns, Arizona's "clean money" elections system already is creaking with signs of age.

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