Clear the Bench Colorado, a group seeking to replace Supreme Court justices at the ballot this November, was advised by Secretary of State Bernie Buescher’s office to register last spring as an issues committee even though the group originally filed as a political action committee, according to documents obtained by the Colorado Independent. Clear the Bench last week was the subject of a complaint filed by Colorado Ethics Watch, which is arguing that the organization is mis-categorized and, as a result, can collect unlimited funds in its effort to target the justices. It’s a reality that works against the specific wishes of Colorado citizens who voted to restrict the flow of money into judicial elections to limit the chance for corruption, according to Ethics Watch.
Years ago voters passed Amendment 27, which stipulates judges be classified as candidates and groups advocating for their election be defined as candidate committees and restricted to collecting donations capped at $525.
Secretary of State Spokesman Richard Coolidge said the election division office provides guidance to all groups filing as a committee in the state but added that the ultimate decision on how to file rests with each organization. “We provided guidance to help them make the final decision,” he said. “Obviously we wanted [Clear the Bench] to find an area where they would disclose their contributions and expenditures. In order to do that, they needed to say ‘Which way do we go?’ We said ‘Here is some guidance: It looks like this could fall on the issue committee side.’ We laid out our arguments and they made the decision to move forward on the decision.”
A letter provided by Coolidge to the Independent describes an account of the meeting between the Secretary of State’s office and Clear the Bench founder Matthew Arnold, as well SOS internal communication on the matter.
According to the letter (pdf), Clear the Bench originally applied to become a political committee 28 April 2009. The application was declined because “[the Secretary of State’s office] at the time felt their committee’s purpose of ‘Judicial Retention’ was too vague and also would classify them as an issue committee.”
The letter went on to say, “After much discussion, our initial thought that they should register as an issue committee was agreed upon.”
Coolidge explained that the office made the decision based on the fact that a question on a ballot is considered an to be an issue. Since retention appears as a yes or no question on the ballot, the Secretary of State’s office deemed Clear the Bench an issues committee.
Clear the Bench is targeting Chief Justice Mary Mullarkey and Justices Michael Bender, Alex Martinez and Nancy Rice for allegedly making rulings that go against the state constitution, particularly the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, in order to provide the legislature with the power to raise taxes.
Once a complaint is filed it takes three days for the Secretary of State’s office to send it to the Administrative Law Judge, who will then examine statutes to determine if the correct designation has been made.
“We provide guidance as well as we can to candidates but the final decision really comes down to an administrative law judge,” Coolidge said. “Now that there is a complaint, we’re sending it along.”