CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - Plenty of money is entering West Virginia's Supreme Court election this year, despite a public financing pilot program meant to blunt the perceived influence of campaign cash.
The $1.8 million amassed by the eight candidates as of March 30 marks a 40 percent increase over the same point in 2008, the last time that two Supreme Court seats were on the ballot. This year's candidates must still file one more round of campaign finance reports before the May 8 primary. The five candidates who ran in 2008 raised another $685,000 during their final pre-primary period.
This year's figure also appears to continue a trend seen in judicial elections nationally. Fundraising in state Supreme Court-level races across the country increased from $5.9 million during the 1989-1990 elections to $45.6 million during 2007-2009, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. The nonpartisan center has scrutinized judicial campaign funding and spending, and promotes public financing.
West Virginia's pilot program offers public funds as an alternative to the traditional chase for campaign cash. But among the eight candidates this year, only Republican Allen Loughry is taking part.
"The idea is that the program will eliminate the perception that Supreme Court seats can be bought by attorneys who appear before the court," Loughry told The Associated Press last week. He added that "the amount of money in these judicial elections is extremely corrosive on the system."
Loughry said he hopes his campaign will help show whether public financing should become a permanent, voluntary option for Supreme Court candidates. Supporters of the pilot program welcome Loughry's participation, but question whether this year's election will truly showcase public financing as a viable alternative.
"We're disappointed that more candidates weren't interested," said Julie Archer of West Virginia Citizen Action Group. "We don't really feel like this is going to be a fair trial run of how a public financing program can work, in terms of reducing the influence of money."
Citizen Action Group is part of West Virginia Citizens for Clean Elections, a coalition that has championed the pilot project. Archer is among several group members who contributed small amounts to Loughry, a longtime law clerk at the Supreme Court, to help him qualify for the program's funding.
Hurdles for continuing the program include dedicating revenues to supply the funding. Lawmakers agreed to withdraw $1 million annually for three years from an account related to the state auditor's purchase card system for the public financing. But they agreed to that while rejecting such other sources as fees levied on lawyers and court filings, the state treasurer's unclaimed property trust fund and a voluntary donation check-off on personal income tax returns.