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Arkansas bill demands more info from groups in court races

March 8, 2019
FILE - In this May 18, 2018, file photo, Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Courtney Goodson speaks to reporters in Little Rock, Ark. An Arkansas lawmaker wants to require outside groups spending money on the state's top judicial races to disclose their donors, after about $2.5 million worth of mailers and TV ads flowed in ahead of last year's election for a spot on the state's top court. The bill has the support of Goodson, who won re-election in November despite being targeted by two conservative groups with a flurry of mailers and TV ads. Goodson lost her bid for chief justice in the 2016 election after facing similar outside attacks. (AP Photo/Andrew DeMillo, File)

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — An Arkansas lawmaker wants to require outside groups spending money on the state’s top judicial races to disclose their donors, after about $2.5 million worth of mailers and TV ads flowed in ahead of last year’s election for a spot on the state’s top court.

A bill filed this week by Republican Rep. Jimmy Gazaway would expand the definition of independent groups that are required to file reports with the state and would require them to release detailed reports about their donors. The expanded reporting would apply to groups that are spending money in races for state Supreme Court or Appeals Court, and would also apply if they’re spending money to “influence the public’s perception” of a candidate.

Gazaway said the move is in response to the past few Supreme Court elections, which have been dominated by spending by out-of-state conservative groups.

“The problem is we’ve not been able to have transparency in who is actually funding these groups,” Gazaway said. “It’s not that you can’t say what you want to say, but it’s that we need to know who is behind the message.”

The bill has the support of Supreme Court Justice Courtney Goodson, who won re-election in November despite being targeted by two conservative groups with a flurry of mailers and TV ads. Goodson lost her bid for chief justice in the 2016 election after facing similar outside attacks.

“What this legislation appears to do, in my opinion, is level the playing field and make these bad actors play by the same rules that every other Arkansan has to,” Goodson told The Associated Press.

The Republican State Leadership Committee’s Judicial Fairness Initiative spent more than $1.9 million on Goodson’s race. Another group, the Judicial Crisis Network, spent more than $510,000 on TV ads for the race in the spring, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks judicial campaign spending.

Judicial Crisis Network is classified as a tax-exempt “social welfare” organization and isn’t required by law to disclose its donors. The RSLC, however, publicly discloses its donors through reports filed with the Internal Revenue Service. A spokesman for the group criticized Gazaway’s measure, including a provision that would allow registered voters to take outside groups to court to force compliance with the disclosure requirements. Judicial Crisis did not respond to an email seeking comment about Gazaway’s bill.

“This legislation would give more say and sway to the special interests to elect members of the Arkansas judiciary, rather than the people,” David James, a spokesman for the group, wrote in an email. “Similar to a batter calling their own balls and strikes in a baseball game, the provision allowing individuals to sue in an Arkansas court to ‘enforce compliance’ is tailor-made to allow special interests to haul their opponents before the courts for daring to challenge the special interest status quo.”

RSLC has also said it doesn’t allow donors to earmark contributions for specific races.

A state judge last year blocked several television stations from running an ad from Judicial Crisis Network targeting Goodson. Goodson had argued the group’s ad, which criticized her over gifts from donors and a pay raise the court received, was defamatory. A federal judge in the fall rejected a request by Goodson to block a similar attack ad and mailer by RSLC.

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