Wednesday, November 28, 2007
Judicial Campaign Task Force Focuses on Electronic Filing
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
California has excellent campaign finance reporting laws but public access to reports filed by judicial candidates needs to be improved, members of a task force appointed by Chief Justice Ronald M. George said yesterday.
The 14-member task force, which is chaired by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William MacLaughlin and is part of the Statewide Commission for Impartial Courts, met yesterday at the Burbank office of the Administrative Office of the Courts.
Its charge is to “evaluate and make recommendations regarding proposals to better regulate campaign financing and advertising.” Yesterday’s agenda consisted of identifying issues for future consideration-the commission’s final report is not due until 2009-and no votes were taken and members emphasized that their discussion of certain proposals did not necessarily imply endorsement.
Orange Superior Court Judge Gail Andler, who heads one of the task force’s working groups, identified several issues for consideration, including whether to require electronic filing by judicial candidates; what threshold level of financial activity should trigger the e-filing requirement, and who should be responsible for maintaining the data and in what form.
Task force consultant Deborah Goldberg, who heads the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, noted that several states have either mandatory or voluntary electronic filing for judicial candidates and maintain the information in sortable databases.
This makes it possible for members of the public to see who is contributing to judicial campaigns, and thus to form judgments about the ability of judges to remain impartial, Goldberg said.
California law currently mandates e-filing for some candidates for state office, but not for judicial candidates. And the state’s electronic filing system, which can be accessed via the Internet, does not include candidates for offices, including trial court judgeships, for which county registrars, rather than the secretary of state, serve as the filing officers.
Chad Finke, an AOC lawyer assisting the task force, noted that of the seven counties in which judicial runoffs were held last year, none had campaign reporting data available electronically. In fact, Finke said, officials in six of the seven counties told him the only way to examine the data was to come to the registrar’s office in person.
Having strong reporting laws, Andler noted, “doesn’t do much good if the public can’t find [the data.]”
Members questioned whether adding judicial candidates to the database would actually allow the public to gain the needed information. But Robert Leidigh, a member of the Fair Political Practices Commission who serves as an advisory member of the task force, noted that the secretary of state’s online database, Cal-Access, already permits the user to identify, on a single screen, all e-filing candidates to whom a specified donor has made contributions.
Leidigh was one of several task force members in other cities who participated via teleconference.
Ventura Superior Court Executive Officer Michael D. Planet urged members not to underestimate the enormity of the task they were discussing. It may take a long time, he said, “to move 58 counties and the secretary of state.”
Goldberg encouraged the task force to look to other jurisdictions’ experience in order to overcome technical and institutional barriers. “You do not have to reinvent the wheel in order to do this,” she said, citing as an example her home city of New York, which mandates e-filing for local office and provides candidates with the necessary software to upload the required data.
Other reporting issues that came up for discussion were whether to require trial court candidates to file additional copies of their reports, either on paper or electronically, with the AOC, thereby creating the first statewide collection of judicial campaign data in one place, and whether to require sitting judges to provide copies of their reports to litigants and attorneys in order to assist them in identifying potential conflicts of interest.
Earlier in the meeting, members discussed issues related to campaign spending. Santa Cruz Superior Court Judge Heather Morse, who heads a working group on the subject, identified several issues to be considered by the task force in the future, including:
•Whether contributions to judicial candidates should be limited;
•Whether such limits should apply to all donors, or only certain types of donors, such as attorneys, litigants, political action committees, or political parties;
•Whether judges who receive contributions from lawyers or litigants with cases before them, above a certain threshold, should be required to recuse themselves;
•Whether the aggregate amount that a single donor may give to all judicial candidates should be limited;
•Whether laws governing the timing of contributions should be changed for judicial races; and
•Whether a system of voluntary spending limits should be enacted.
Justice Richard Aldrich, of this district’s Court of Appeal, raised another issue for possible consideration-whether laws should be changed to permit the creation of a “blind trust” that would allow donors to give money to judicial candidates without the candidate knowing the donor.
He analogized to mutual funds, which judges are permitted to invest in without subjecting themselves to the reporting requirements and potential disqualification that accompany stock investments. Mutual fund investments, he noted, do not carry the appearance of bias that arises when a judge owns stock in a party, since the judge does not know on any given day what position, if any, a particular mutual fund is holding in a particular stock.
Aldrich emphasized that he was throwing the idea out for discussion and not necessarily endorsing it.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company