Thursday, February 11, 2016

Dark money in state Supreme Court race funding mailers, website attacking Goodson

Posted By on Thu, Feb 11, 2016 at 9:38 AM


Earlier this week, a "dark money" group from out of state, the Judicial Crisis Network, launched a $336,000 statewide television assault on Associate Supreme Court Justice Courtney Goodson, who is running for the position of chief justice in the March 1 election.

The JCN isn't limiting itself to TV. A reader passes along this mailer from the organization, which takes the same line of attack as the broadcast advertisement: Goodson is an "insider" beholden to rich special interest groups. 

"Most Arkansans don't get $50,000 vacations to Italy paid by trial attorneys, but Supreme Court Justice Courtney Goodson did," it says. The mailer also includes a URL,, which contains more of the same, along with a lazy flourish of cheap animation — her champagne bubbles, her pearls glint, she gives a ghoulish wink — for supremely uncanny effect.

One thing this tells us is that the JCN has spent more than $336,000 in this race. That figure is known only because TV ad buys that concern political happenings during election season must be disclosed to the Federal Communications Commission. There's no such parallel requirement for direct mail, or Internet ads.

That's right. There is simply no method of tracking the money spent on this sort of advertisement, at least not in Arkansas. No disclosure on the funding side. No disclosure on the spending side. In the eyes of existing campaign finance law, this flyer might as well be selling vacuum cleaners or ribeye steaks. So how much has the JCN spent on the race so far? There's no way to tell.

Goodson's opponent, Circuit Judge Dan Kemp, has kinda-sorta distanced himself from the JCN's campaign, insisting he had no prior knowledge of the organization while adding that "the JCN raises what I see as legitimate questions about Ms. Goodson's publicly disclosed acceptance of lavish gifts."

Kemp also said in a letter sent to supporters yesterday that "my personal belief is that any money contributed to influence the outcome of an election should be done in the spirit of transparency. Nothing less, nothing more."

The JCN is a hardcore conservative 501(c)4 organization that inserts itself into state elections, supposedly independent from any candidate's actual campaign. It is the opposite of transparent: The JCN's donors are shrouded in secrecy, thanks to campaign finance loopholes. It exists only to pump outside attack money into races. There's huge irony in an organization like this one attacking a candidate for her shaky ethics on campaign contributions — even if those points are indeed valid.

Setting aside all of those issues for a second, how effective will the JCN's broadsides be in this race? Well, there's this — one of GOP frontrunner Donald Trump's main selling points to his devotees is the fact that he's supposedly not beholden to special interests, being a billionaire and all. He's too rich to be reliant on donors  — "Can't be bought!" proclaimed one flyer I picked up at the Trump rally in Little Rock last week. Voters, including many very conservative voters, feel acutely the undeniable fact that moneyed interests hold vast sway in American electoral politics.

So, while the JCN's line of attack against Goodson may or may not be effective in the election, it does tap into quite a potent vein of (righteous!) popular anger.

It's interesting that the JCN's ads still make no mention of the fact that Goodson's husband, John Goodsonis an influential trial attorney who has himself raised money for several justices now sitting on the court. Maybe that line of attack is coming in a future iteration of this shadowy campaign. Or maybe there's some other reason for not bringing up that information. I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that it's not out of decorous restraint on the part of the Judicial Crisis Network, but who knows, maybe I'm wrong.

Oh, also: Just a reminder that Courtney Goodson, a sitting justice on the Arkansas Supreme Court, is this week loudly broadcasting an official endorsement from the National Rifle Association, which rarely gets involved in judicial races.

Here's the back of the mailer:


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