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Report cites influence of special interest money in Mo. judge races

Partisan funding may have caused Tom Brown’s loss in a county circuit court election.
Tuesday, May 29, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:28 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

In November 2006, Cole County Circuit Judge Tom Brown, who had served on the bench for 19 years, was defeated in his bid to retain his seat by Jon Beetem. Brown received 47.03 percent of the vote to Beetem’s 52.84 percent.

Beetem was backed by a group called Citizens for Judicial Reform, which put $175,000 into a campaign of TV advertisements and mailings that urged citizens to vote against Brown.

How judges get their positions

Missouri’s trial court judges are elected in partisan elections in most counties, including Boone. In St. Louis, Jackson, Clay and Platte counties and the city of St. Louis, trial judges are selected under the nonpartisan “Missouri Plan” system. Trial judges serve six-year terms. Judges who were elected in 2002 will be up for re-election in the next general election in November 2008.


Some of the anti-Brown brochures said he raised taxes on farmers and increased utility rates, Brown said. The brochures stated that the utility increases “put the poor out in the cold during the winter,” Brown said.

The group’s money, according to a new report by the Washington, D.C.-based judicial watch group Justice at Stake Campaign, didn’t come from within the county or even within the state. It came from a Chicago-based interest group called Americans for Limited Government.

Justice at Stake released the New Politics of Judicial Campaigns 2006 report on May 17. The report claims that special interest groups are endangering the independence of state judiciaries, with Missouri at the forefront of the trend.

“Of course, over almost 20 years on the bench in Cole County, I’d handled cases from the State Tax Commission, the Public Service Commission and constitutional challenges to tax laws,” Brown said. “And over all those years, I had ruled in favor of the Public Service Commission and against them, and in favor of laws and against them.”

Brown said the number of opinions he had issued and the variety of decisions he handed down made it easier for the special interest groups to attack him.

“They were sophisticated enough to know that those things were untrue, but they brought them out in the (campaign’s) last days anyway,” he said.

The campaign’s money and tactics led Justice at Stake Campaign to look into the Missouri race.

“Normally, Missouri wouldn’t even make it in to a national report like this,” Justice at Stake Campaign spokesman Jesse Rutledge said. “But the campaign against Judge Brown was so nasty and expensive that it caught the eye of observers as far away as Washington, D.C.”

Americans for Limited Government could not be reached for comment. One phone number on its Web site reached an unidentified voicemail system and the other reached the Sam Adams Alliance, an organization that “supports citizen leaders who are working to defend liberty, hold the government accountable, and make real political change at the local level,” according to its Web site.

The treasurer of Citizens for Judicial Reform was Jefferson City resident Mike Clark, according to a Missouri Ethics Commission report. The commission’s online listing shows the group sharing an address and phone number with Clark, who did not return calls.

The 2006 report states that the cost and partisanship of trial court elections have increased in recent years.

“This is something very new,” Rutledge said. “There have long been very expensive, bruising battles in states which elect their supreme courts. But we’re seeing the same trends, with outside groups funding things like direct mailings and TV ads, beginning to affect many state trial court campaigns.”

Attorney Ron Baird, president of The Missouri Bar, said his organization is concerned about the inflow of money from special interest groups.

“The Missouri bar doesn’t normally get involved in the partisan elections, but it does concern us when there is money coming from outside of the state to a local election,” he said. “While we cannot weigh in on political elections, it should be a concern to the citizens and lawyers of the state that this is happening.”

Rutledge said citizens need to have more knowledge of judicial races when they enter the voting booth.

“For trial court judges, we need an effort from civic groups and legal organizations to have aggressive, non-partisan voter education,” he said. “Voters show up not knowing there is an election for a judge and have a deficit of usable information. They should be voting based on reputation, integrity and the ability to fairly and impartially administer justice, not based on one or two cases that special interest groups do not like the result of.”

Baird said the Missouri bar has several voter-education initiatives to inform citizens before judicial elections. He said the bar compiles a judicial survey to see where judges in the Kansas City and St. Louis areas stand with voters and how they have ruled.

“We have a judicial survey committee working on how to get information to voters,” Baird said. He said Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Wolff encouraged the bar to examine and improve the voter-education initiatives in his State of the Courts address earlier this year.

Baird said that although he isn’t sure what voters “know or don’t know” about particular judges, he thinks the problem with voter education lies with appellate judges rather than trial judges. The bar focuses its surveys on appellate judges because of this.

“We’re concerned with letting people know how these judges rule and how they rate on these surveys,” he said.

Brown said the tactics used against him in the campaign were unheard of.

“The financial level was unprecedented. The techniques were never used before,” he said. “Designing a campaign so you don’t care about the truthfulness of a campaign as long as you get a result, that had never been seen seen before at that level. There’s no limit to what they’ll do to win, no level of decency they’ll use to win. They know politics, but it’s dirty politics and it’s not something that helps voters.”


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