This article originally provided by The Charleston Daily Mail

May 23, 2007

Justice's contentious campaign lands big-time invitation

Justin D. Anderson
Daily Mail Staff

No stranger to the subject, state Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin has been invited to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to talk about the growing influence of money and special interest groups on judicial elections.

The session scheduled for today was called "Mudslinging in Judicial Elections: Beginning to Look a lot Like Congress."

The three-hour event is being sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center and a non-profit Web site that offers candidate and campaign information.

Benjamin was one of two judges scheduled to speak.

The judge's 2004 campaign against former Justice Warren McGraw -- bankrolled largely by Massey Energy chief Don Blankenship -- is considered one of the most expensive and contentious judicial races ever.

Benjamin said he would talk about third-party involvement in judicial elections across the country and the role the media can play in educating voters.

He also was to touch on partisan politics in state judicial elections, like the situation in West Virginia.

"There seems to be a growing consensus that partisanship should be taken out of the elections," Benjamin said.

Benjamin didn't say just how much of his own experience he planned to discuss, but he indicated he would have trouble avoiding the special interest angle in his case.

"Certainly third parties were very much involved in my campaign," he said, "both against McGraw and parties targeted against my campaign."

Organizers of the conference said Benjamin was an easy pick for the event.

At least six third-party special interest groups spent millions of dollars on negative ads during Benjamin's campaign against incumbent McGraw.

Blankenship spent about $3 million of his own money to help unseat McGraw, mostly through a campaign run by the group called And for the Sake of the Kids. The organization ran numerous ads indicating the judge was easy on criminals.

The controversial campaign has had far-reaching effects, inspiring talk among state lawmakers about how to regulate such election spending and spurring conflict among other elected officials.

West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Larry Starcher told the New York Times last year that it made him "want to puke" to see Blankenship's involvement in the judicial elections.

"Now we have one justice who was bought by Don Blankenship," Starcher said of Benjamin.

Observers say the circumstances surrounding Benjamin's campaign were unprecedented.

"I think that the involvement of third parties running very negative ads on such a large scale was quite remarkable," said Viveca Novak, deputy director of the factcheck.org, the Web site co-sponsoring today's lecture. "It certainly set a record."

Novak said Benjamin and Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb were the first judges they thought of when putting the conference together. Cobb also was to speak.

"I'm anxious to hear what he thinks about it," Novak said of Benjamin. "I hear he's never really spoken out about it."

Cobb, meanwhile, was involved in the second most expensive judicial election in history when she unseated incumbent Chief Justice Drayton Nabers last year.

Candidates in that election raised a total of $13.4 million, according to the nonpartisan Justice at Stake Campaign, a group formed in 2002 to promote impartiality in the judicial system.

By contrast, candidates in Benjamin's race raised about $2.77 million.

Bert Brandenburg, Justice at Stake's executive director and one of the panelists at today's conference, said the Alabama race might have involved more money, but Benjamin's race led in the number of negative ads.

"Certainly we kept a close eye on that race," Brandenburg said. "It was the poster child for targeting justices for individual rulings in trying to knock them off the bench."

The And for the Sake of the Kids campaign in 2004 zeroed in on McGraw's support of a controversial decision to free convicted sex offender Tony D. Arbaugh from prison that year.

The courtís decision included a proposal for Arbaugh to take a job as a janitor at Bishop Donahue High School in McMechen, Marshall County. Arbaugh, who was initially charged with molesting his younger half-brother, wound up never working at the school.

McGraw had voted in support of the courtís majority opinion that said Arbaugh should go through a rehabilitation program that included him taking the job. McGraw has said he did not know about that provision in the majority opinion when he voted for it.

He ran his own campaign ads trying to explain the Arbaugh situation, and said he also had supported a concurring opinion in the case that did not specify Arbaugh should take a job at the school.

The back-and-forth ad campaigns continued throughout the race, but it ended with Benjamin winning 53 percent of the vote.

"Nationally, it was pretty eye-popping to see one group and essentially one man put a Supreme Court justice in the crosshairs and knock him off in order to satisfy one group's agenda," Brandenburg said of Blankenship and his campaign.

Brandenburg's group said in a new report that television advertising and campaign spending were at record levels during judicial elections last year.

In 2000, television ads ran in only four of 18 judicial elections held nationwide, the report said. Last year, the ads ran in 10 of 11 elections.

Business and Republican groups were responsible for the majority of the ads, the report said. The business interests sponsored 90 percent of the ads.

Brandenburg says this involvement is intended to make a judge beholden to special interest groups.

As far as money is concerned, five of the 10 states where judicial elections were held last year set fundraising records, the report said.

Contact writer Justin D. Anderson at 348-4843.

 

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