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BRUMMETT ONLINE: A way out of the darkness

They call it “dark money” because it certainly is, in more than one meaning of the word.

It’s dark in terms of what you can’t see, owing to the lack of required disclosure of its sources.

It’s dark in the sinister politics it permits, owing to the absence of spending limits on the groups engaging in it or on the secret persons funneling — or perhaps laundering — the actual big bucks.

In the three-candidate race for an associate justice’s position on the Arkansas Supreme Court to appear on the ballot next week, a group calling itself the Judicial Crisis Network has now dropped big money to make bogus assaults on two of the three candidates.

The group, ultra-right in its politics, has attacked Associate Justice Courtney Goodson, who seeks re-election, and Judge Kenneth Hixson of the Arkansas Court of Appeals.

That effectively reveals that the group favors the other candidate, David Sterling, an extreme conservative who lost the Republican attorney general’s primary four years ago to Leslie Rutledge, whom he made appear implausibly moderate by comparison.

Sterling is the least-worthy of the candidates, which tells you a little something about the Judicial Crisis Network — which is that it isn’t squeamish when it comes to the quality of the Arkansas appellate judiciary.

Since the money is intentionally dark, distributed in a way to evade public revelation and accountability, it seems fair to me to speculate about it … speculation being all we have.

To begin, journalistic efforts to get to the bottom of the Judicial Crisis Network’s pipeline have been routinely foiled. The group gets money from other mysterious groups, which get money from other mysterious ones.

The Citizens United ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court invites the proliferation of such groups and permits their unlimited spending on political advertising. The Republicans on the U.S. Supreme Court call that free speech, though it seems rather expensive to me.

What that might mean — just to raise one possibility, for purposes of understanding the disgrace of such a system — is that there’s one rich guy in Arkansas who is rabidly right-wing, likes Sterling, believes the media is liberally biased and is taking it upon his secret self to fund Sterling’s campaign in evasion of campaign contribution limits and disclosure laws.

It could mean the one guy is divvying up hundreds of thousands of his spare dollars among shadowy groups that give in turn to the Judicial Crisis Network. It could mean there is some tacit understanding that the rich guy at the root of the money wants his guy Sterling propped up down in Arkansas.

That’s not to say that’s how it works in this case. It’s to say it could be working that way, and that we don’t know. It’s to say it’s not working democratically or fairly, even if it’s working some modified way.

“Dark money” means that, if you abide by the law and give Goodson or Hixson the maximum legal contribution and submit to the provision that your contribution will be duly reported publicly, then you’re a sap.

It means you’re getting trumped by wealth and darkness.

It needn’t be this way.

First, Citizens United frees the money, but not necessarily the secrecy. States may require disclosures under that otherwise shameful ruling.

State Rep. Clarke Tucker of Little Rock, who contends to go to Congress where he belongs, tried repeatedly to pass “electioneering” disclosure laws in recent sessions only to get laughed out of Republican-dominated state legislative committee rooms.

Second, a subsequent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a Florida case, by 5-to-4 with Chief Justice John Roberts joining Democratic appointees, seemed to say that judgeship candidates are not regular politicians and that — because these are specialty offices with special qualifications — states could restrict spending on them in ways that Citizens United doesn’t allow in other campaigns.

That could well mean the state could put dark money out of business, at least by requiring groups to make singular reported and capped contributions like regular people.

The other option — the best one — would be for voters to overwhelmingly reject Sterling, to leave him a distant third and out of the runoff.

But that’s probably a utopian view.

Most likely, amid Trumpian dystopia, the Judicial Crisis Network polled the race and then attacked Goodson as Sterling’s chief threat, then re-polled and saw Hixson coming on and then attacked him in expectation that Pavlovian voters would abandon both and maybe elect their guy without a runoff.

That would manage to make a bad Arkansas Supreme Court even worse, compounding pettiness and internal dysfunction with money-beholden political extremism.

That’s about as disastrous as making Jan Morgan governor, which apparently isn’t going to happen — maybe for the simple reason that some secret rich Arkansas right-wing extremist was more interested in having his dark-money deposits spent on electing Sterling than unseating the moderate Republican governor.

We should be thankful for small favors.

It’s a tenuous situation out there. We need campaign finance reform, or, failing that, voter reform, particularly television viewer reform.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers’ Hall of Fame. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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