Judge rules against group named Clear the Bench

The campaign that is trying to get voters to oust several Colorado Supreme Court justices who are up for retention this year violated campaign finance rules, an administrative law judge ruled Friday.

The group, Clear the Bench, filed itself as an issue committee with the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office when it should have declared itself a political group, Administrative Law Judge Robert Spencer ruled.

Spencer said that for the purposes of a retention vote, justices are considered to be candidates. Issue committees are reserved for groups supporting or opposing ballot measures and referendums.

While Matthew Arnold, director of the right-leaning group, said Spencer’s ruling is contrary to what he was told by state elections officials last year when he created the committee, Luis Toro, director of the left-leaning Colorado Ethics Watch that filed the complaint against him, said the distinction is important because it determines how much in donations such groups can accept.

“This is a victory for Colorado voters, who said in 2002 that judicial elections should be governed by the same rules that apply to other candidate elections,” Toro said.

“The law does not permit a wealthy few to unduly influence the judicial retention process through large contributions against judges and justices whose rulings they don’t like.”

Toro said the ruling will keep “big money” out of judicial elections, adding that Clear the Bench has accepted contributions exceeding the $525 limit allowed for political committees.

A check of Clear the Bench’s campaign finance reports, however, shows that while that’s true, only three donations over the past 18 months exceeded that amount: one for $545, another for $1,000 and a third for $2,500.

Beyond that, the bulk of the $19,583 it has collected so far has come from individual donations of $50 or less.

“Clear the Bench has been funded exclusively by donations from interested individuals, and not by moneyed interests,” Arnold said. “(Colorado Ethics Watch) on the other hand is funded by a veritable plethora of moneyed interests. The Colorado Bar Association just this last month alone as part of a consortium of four groups admitted to having spent $50,000” against Arnold’s effort.

Three of the state’s seven justices are up for retention this year: Michael Bender, Alex Martinez and Nancy Rice.

Chief Justice Mary Mullarkey was to be up for a retention vote Nov. 2, but the justice decided instead to retire because of her failing health.

Her seat on the bench was replaced recently by Grand Junction High School graduate Monica Marquez, an attorney in the Colorado Attorney General’s Office.

Marquez, 41, will serve a provisional two-year term before she is up for a retention vote. Justices come up for such a vote every 10 years.


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