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Justice for Sale in Cole County

Earlier this month, the race for Cole County Circuit Judge received national attention because Republican candidate Brian Stumpe received a $100,000 from the Republican State Leadership Committee. The donation was an incredible boost to his campaign to unseat Democratic Circuit Judge Pay Joyce. When he received the check, Stumpe’s campaign had just $58.47 cash on hand and was drowning in more than $12,976 in debt. Just days later, the group announced they were spending an additional $100,000 to air attack ads against Joyce.

The Washington DC based group, which has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Rex Sinquefield in the past, is refusing to disclose the name of the donor who provided the $200,000 that is being poured into mid-Missouri. The Jefferson City News-Tribune has decried the contribution, saying:

“We believe circuit judge elections should be decided not on the basis of political parties  or campaign contributions, but on which candidate is most knowledgeable, deliberative and fair in dispensing justice. Period.”

Here's what the Post-Dispatch wrote today: 

A spokesman for RSLC told the Post-Dispatch’s Virginia Young last week that the committee doesn’t accept “earmarked” donations. But its past tells a different story. In the 2012 race for secretary of state, Republican Shane Schoeller was a recipient of money from the committee, but the real source of the funding was Missouri’s most prolific political donor, Rex Sinquefield.

Here’s how the game is played. On Oct. 23, 2012, Mr. Sinquefield donated $475,000 to RSLC. Within a week, RSLC had written three checks to Mr. Schoeller totaling — you guessed it — $475,000.

It’s actually against the law in Missouri to give a campaign donation with the intention of obscuring the original source of the funds. But the law is ignored because it is difficult to prove intent.

In the case of the high-priced attacks on Judge Joyce, it’s impossible at this point to know which deep-pocketed donor is trying to buy a judge, but it’s not hard at all to see that’s exactly what is happening.
Judge [Judge William Ray Price Jr.,  former chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court and a Republican]warned this would happen in his 2011 speech:

“Judges who have been bought and paid for have not been the Missouri way since 1940, and they should not be the Missouri way of the future,” he told lawmakers.

Writing for The Examiner, attorney Bob Buckley notes the threat that this donation makes to judicial independence in Missouri as Missouri's non-partisan court plan is regularly under attack:

 Want to buy a judge? Apparently in Cole County it could cost $100,000... In some states, millions of dollars are spent on judicial elections. These are not grass roots campaigns, but campaigns funded by those who have a direct interest in the judicial process. Since the United States Supreme Courts has now given corporations the right to give unlimited contributions, we will no doubt continue to see the Cole County experience repeated.

Stumpe has ignored calls to return the contribution and claims to have had no foreknowledge of the donation or what donor was behind it. However, his cash-strapped and deeply in debt campaign had reportedly already begun filming a televison commercial before the donation came in. 

Missouri is the only state in the nation that allows both unlimited campaign contributions and unlimited lobbyist gifts. This donation is just another in a long line of attempts by wealthy donors and ideological interests to buy their way in the State Capitol and in courthouses across the state.