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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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  • Foghorn
    May 16, 2018 at 5:44 a.m.

    So the Wellspring Committee is the 401-C-4 which allows JCN to hide their donor(s) identity, but it’s founders’ ties to the Koch’s are clear. Their charter states ‘they do not participate in political activities.’ I’m not sure how they keep their tax exempt status.

  • RBear
    May 16, 2018 at 6:37 a.m.

    DB, they are a 501(c)(4). Because they focus on issue ads, they can keep that status provided they don't mention being in support of a candidate. As Brummett noted, dark money is the money laundering game of politics. Efforts to plug it fall on deaf ears as it would cut off the flow of money to political causes and advisers. Until it just gets so bad it destroys our elections, nothing will be done about it. That's why people like Clarke Tucker need to be elected. French Hill doesn't give a flying rat's a** about the issue. His bosses tell him to ignore it.
    ...
    With regards to Sterling, I heard him speak yesterday at Political Animals and he could never really make the case for why he's qualified for the state's highest court. In fact, all the reasons he stated made him less appealing than more. It's like a football player who was good in high school (his small law firms), got to go with his team to the state playoffs sitting on the bench (Sterling's one case as an interested party in an appeals court in '06), got to walk on to a college team (appointment by Asa to DHS), and now wants to referee in major college bowl games even though he's never even refereed a peewee football game.
    ...
    As stated, he's the LEAST qualified of the three candidates but apparently is being financed by big money to subvert our state's judicial system.

  • hah406
    May 16, 2018 at 8:14 a.m.

    Sterling is utterly unqualified and his ads betray his highly partisan approach to a non-partisan election. What does being a member of the NRA have to do with appropriately adjudicating questions about the state constitution in the state supreme court? And would someone tell me what the hell "Arkansas values" even means? I am an Arkansan, and I suspect that my values line up much more with JB's than Mr. Sterling's.

  • TimberTopper
    May 16, 2018 at 8:14 a.m.

    There should be a limit on campaign spending, with no dark money available. However, it probably won't happen until enough voters get tired of bad politicians. At present corporate America owns our politicians and as a result our democracy. It hasn't belonged to the American people in many years.

  • BoudinMan
    May 16, 2018 at 8:53 a.m.

    To paraphrase Shakespeare, first we "kill" all the lobbyists.

  • GeneralMac
    May 16, 2018 at 9:05 a.m.

    John Brummett pays homage.....AGAIN........to Clarke Tucker by saying.........." who contends to go to congress where he belongs"

    NO ONE " belongs" in congress.

    WIinning elections is all that counts.
    Get off your knees paying homage to Clark Tucker .

  • GeneralMac
    May 16, 2018 at 9:16 a.m.

    Haha406 seems to think HIS ( and John Brummett's values are " Arkansas values".

    You two are so far in the minority with your " values" .
    If you think you two and the " usual suspects" who post here are representative of Arkansas, I still have ocean front property in Harrison Arkansas for sale.

  • RobertBolt
    May 16, 2018 at 9:35 a.m.

    Arkansas values are neither monolithic nor generally all that admirable.

  • Jfish
    May 16, 2018 at 9:37 a.m.

    Timber is correct, until we put rational limits on the election spending and have full disclosure, little will change. Most all of our spending habits are out of control and the politicians (and constituents) are owned by corporations.

  • GeneralMac
    May 16, 2018 at 9:50 a.m.

    BOLTAR............the values of liberal Eureka Springs are not representative of the values of the majority of Arkansas.

    The day my town's big celebration is a gay pride parade led by a guy doing backflips wearing only a jock strap is the day I move.

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