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Bill on judicial-race donors fails in House

by Neal Earley | April 20, 2021 at 2:00 a.m.

The House on Monday rejected a bill that sought to shed light on so-called dark money contributions in judicial elections in Arkansas.

House Bill 1899, by Rep. Andrew Collins, D-Little Rock, would have required "comprehensive disclosure" of contributions and expenditures for groups that spend money in Arkansas Supreme Court and Court of Appeals races.

Collins said the bill aimed to bring transparency to who is funding campaign ads in judicial elections. But the bill failed after Rep. David Ray, R-Maumelle, spoke against it, saying the bill would "regulate free speech in Arkansas."

"Dark money," from undisclosed contributors, became a topic after outside groups bought campaign ads in appellate court races.

Collins said "special interest" groups have used a loophole in the state's election laws that allows them to spend millions of dollars in judicial races without disclosing their donors if the group doesn't explicitly support a candidate's election or defeat. Critics said spending by outside groups in judicial races has undermined the public's belief that justices are nonpartisan.

"We have a chance to rebuild that trust and to preserve the trust of the judiciary with this bill," Collins said.

If it became law, the bill would have required outside groups to disclose information on their donors, if the groups push campaign material within 120 days of an election for Arkansas Supreme Court and Court of Appeals races.

For Ray, requiring outside groups that campaign in judicial elections to disclose their donors could subject those donors to being "intimated and canceled."

"The sponsor said this bill is about transparency. I disagree," Ray said. "Transparency is for government, privacy is for citizens."

All other contributors to political races are disclosed in Arkansas.

With the support of the Arkansas Bar Association, House Bill 1899 easily passed through committee.

Paul W. Keith, president of the Arkansas Bar Association, said he supported the bill because spending in judicial races has undermined the public's support in the independence of elected judges.

"We felt like it's important for the voters to know who is trying to influence those elections," Keith said. "So, it's a transparency bill."

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