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Originally published September 14, 2006 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 14, 2006 at 12:48 AM

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State Supreme Court contests spark "fundraising arms race"

An unprecedented amount of money is flowing into this year's state Supreme Court races, much of it financing attack ads by conservative...

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

OLYMPIA — An unprecedented amount of money is flowing into this year's state Supreme Court races, much of it financing attack ads by conservative and liberal factions fighting over the ideological bent of the court.

More than $2.7 million has gone into the races so far, double the spending on Supreme Court campaigns in 2004.

Political action committees have reported spending more than $1.4 million on behalf of court candidates — most of it by groups trying to unseat Chief Justice Gerry Alexander.

In addition, candidates themselves have raised more than $1.3 million, which is close to the candidate-spending record set in the last election, according to the most recent state filings.

"You're going to have more money in your Supreme Court campaigns than I suspect anybody thought was possible," said Jesse Rutledge, a spokesman for Justice at Stake, a Washington, D.C., group pushing to keep politics and special interests out of court races.

"Voters are going to look at what is transpiring and may wonder: Is justice up for sale?" he said.

Political action committees (PACs) representing business, labor and other interests are the biggest factor behind the flood of money.

"This whole independent expenditure thing has exploded," said Doug Ellis, with the state Public Disclosure Commission (PDC). Independent groups spent only about $5,500 on Supreme Court races in 2004, he said.

Conservative groups campaigning against incumbent justices say the current court favors government over individual rights. Labor, environmental and other groups supporting the incumbents say the challengers would do the bidding of special interests.

Many people blame PACs for the mudslinging that's dominated the debate in recent weeks, with advertising campaigns directly attacking the character of candidates running for office.

Groups including the Building Industry Association of Washington and Americans Tired of Lawsuit Abuse have paid for campaign ads and materials accusing Alexander of being too old for the job, soft on crime and weak on property-rights protection.

Americans Tired of Lawsuit Abuse, based in Alexandria, Va., is funded mainly by the nonprofit American Tort Reform Association.

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On the other side, a group called Citizens to Uphold the Constitution is running a television ad that says Alexander's opponent, Bellevue property-rights attorney John Groen, and "far-right extremists are trying to buy our Supreme Court." The commercial contends Groen and his supporters oppose abortion and stem-cell research and would "gut protections for our clean air and water."

Citizens to Uphold the Constitution is supported by labor, environmental groups, trial lawyers and other organizations.

The surge in independent expenditures coincides with a recent change in state law that limits campaign contributions to Supreme Court candidates. Before the change, there was no limit.

The maximum that an individual or group can give to a Supreme Court or Court of Appeals candidate is $2,800 — $1,400 each for the primary and general elections. PACs are not bound by the new campaign-finance limits.

Three incumbents face challengers this election.

So far this year, three separate PACs have spent more than $1.1 million to support Groen's race against Alexander.

That race will be decided in the primary on Tuesday, as will the contest between Justice Tom Chambers and his challenger, former King County Superior Court Judge Jeanette Burrage of Des Moines.

The third race will likely go into the general election. Justice Susan Owens is being challenged by Republican state Sen. Stephen Johnson of Kent, attorney Michael Johnson of Seattle, environmental attorney Richard Smith of Seattle and administrative-law Judge Norman J. Ericson of Olympia.

Rutledge of Justice at Stake argues that, in addition to potentially undermining voter confidence in the court, the influx of spending by special-interest groups leads to more negative campaigns.

Supreme Court justices are constrained in what they can say during a campaign. Judicial canons tell them to maintain the dignity of the office and avoid taking positions on issues that could come before the court. Independent groups have a free hand by comparison.

"A lot of the money that gets raised and spent by outside groups tends to go to campaign tactics that are a lot more negative than you'd see candidates themselves condone in their own campaigns," Rutledge said.

PACs on both sides in the Washington state races have accused each other of distortion and lies. Citizens to Uphold the Constitution filed complaints with the PDC on Wednesday claiming that certain PACs opposing Alexander and Chambers did not follow state finance-disclosure requirements.

The PDC plans to investigate but will not finish its inquiry until after the election. It's not unusual for the agency to get these types of complaints, particularly in the closing days of a campaign.

Gov. Christine Gregoire on Wednesday bemoaned the growth of special-interest spending in the Supreme Court races.

"I don't think they should be run with lots of money. I don't think they should be run with character assassination ads," Gregoire said. "It's demeaning to the positions they are running for. It's demeaning to the whole court."

Yet Gregoire herself has jumped into the fray by donating $15,000 to Citizens to Uphold the Constitution — which supports Alexander — through a PAC she controls called the Legacy Fund. In addition, Gregoire said she has called some potential donors and "opened up the door" for others to call them about contributions.

Gregoire said she got involved to help level the playing field. "When I was informed about the amount of money that was being raised to go after the incumbent jurists, what do you do? Sit there and do nothing?"

State Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders, a friend of the Building Industry Association of Washington who is not up for election this year, has criticized Gregoire for helping to raise PAC money.

"My concern is for the separation of powers. We have the executive branch attempting to influence the popular election of judicial candidates. That is ultimately my concern," he said. "I also think the governor talks out of both sides of her mouth, but that is a human weakness."

Gregoire would not respond to Sanders' criticisms, saying, "I don't believe I should be in a public debate with a sitting judicial officer."

Rutledge says Washington is caught in a "fundraising arms race."

"You can point fingers in either direction in terms of who started it. But you are in a vicious cycle at this point, and when things cool off after November, Washington state is going to have to take a long, hard look at whether they want this to happen again," he said.

Staff reporter Ralph Thomas contributed to this story.

Andrew Garber: agarber@seattletimes.com or 360-236-8268

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