Public financing deserves a fair hearing
We need to restore public confidence that neither judicial office nor justice is available to the highest bidder.
Thomas J. Cole’s recent column in the Albuquerque Journal, “Parts of State’s Public Campaign Finance Law at Stake,” describes New Mexico’s roller-coaster ride down the legal tracks.
In 2007, the New Mexico Legislature amended the Voter Action Act to address the potentially corrupting influence of large-money contributions in judicial elections. This enactment of public finance represented a Legislative recognition that judicial elections are particularly subject to direct special interest influence.
I decided to use this public finance option in pursuing the New Mexico Court of Appeals in 2012 to avoid the appearance that big-money contributions corrupt judicial races and the selection process.
After practicing law for 28 years and serving as a workers’ compensation judge for nearly five years, I have seen how the system works.
You will hear that judges are not supposed to know whether and how much money attorneys contribute to their campaigns. In fact, the Code of Judicial Conduct prohibits judges from knowing about the contributions.
But judges who pursue privately funded campaigns do not wear blindfolds when they attend their own fundraisers, or at least I have never seen this happen. Nevertheless, the usual attendees to these fundraisers are attorneys, and often they are the same ones who appear before the judge.
So with a wink and a handshake we pretend that judges are “legally” shielded from the knowledge that anyone who attended their fundraiser actually gave a contribution.
How public financing works
Under the public financing option of the Voter Action Act, candidates or their committees may collect initial “seed money” contributions capped at $100 per person, and may not exceed a limit of $5,000.
During the second stage of the Act’s public financing procedure, the campaign must collect about 1,200 contributions of $5 to qualify for the funding. The candidate’s campaign turns these $5 contributions to the secretary of state, who deposits them into the Public Election Fund. This allows the judicial candidate to qualify for public money for the primary and the general elections, which are paid from the fund.
The Voter Action Act addresses the critical concern that an attorney may appear in front of the judge for a trial in the morning, while just the night before that attorney might have attended the judge’s fundraiser. Because these events are “fundraisers,” it does not take much imagination to conclude that money was contributed to the campaign during the event from some or all of those attorneys, although the amounts and identities of contributors are shielded from the judge.
In previous election cycles for the appellate courts, some of these contributions were small, but some ranged up from several hundred to tens of thousands of dollars. This is our current process, and it is perfectly legal, but its continuance does little to instill confidence among the public that judicial elections are free of big-money influence.
A sigh of relief
I have spoken with many New Mexico voters during my campaign. I have seen people breath a sigh of relief that someone is using the public financing option to address the perceived problem of special interest influence in judicial elections. We need to restore public confidence that neither judicial office nor justice is available to the highest bidder.
The current challenge to the Voter Action Act seeks to limit the matching funds provision, which would put public financed judge candidates on equal footing with their privately funded opponents. The court will need to determine whether judicial races are unique in our political system and whether the Voter Action Act addresses the compelling interest that the state has in reducing corruption and the appearance of corruption in these campaigns.
This is particularly important where judge contributions and the exercise of the judicial function can take place from one day to the next. The public financing option should have a fair hearing before the courts.
Lopez is a candidate for a seat on the N.M. Court of Appeals.
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