The gripe? Clear the Bench is registered with the Secretary of State's office as an issues committee, which can accept unlimited contributions. But CEW director Luis Toro believes Clear the Bench should be designated a campaign committee subject to donor limits since "judges are defined as candidates in Amendment 27. And the only reasonable interpretation of that language is that elections for judges should be treated as candidate elections."
Arnold calls this argument "a pathetic political ploy by Colorado Ethics Watch to scare off donors and intimidate us. But we're not going to run away from the legal hucksterism they're trying to do."
Clear the Bench's contribution page notes its status as an issues committee, meaning that donations aren't tax deductible but there's "no ceiling" on how much an entity can give. Toro isn't troubled by that when an issue is involved -- "but with a human being, there is a danger. I think the voters intended to have judicial elections be subject to campaign-finance limits like other elections, so we don't get into a position where judges are trying to curry favor with people who write large checks."
The Secretary of State's office feels differently, Arnold insists: "When we were exploring the type of committee to file under, we asked the Secretary of State for guidance, and they recommended that we file as an issues committee. And we followed their guidance."
Moreover, Arnold argues that "Colorado Ethics Watch knows about this." As evidence, he points to a January piece by the Colorado Independent website in which Toro raised the subject. He said:
Take the Clear the Bench campaign, which seeks to unseat all of the [Colorado] Supreme Court justices. So far, the donations made by that campaign have conformed to candidate-donation-limit standards. Those limits are lower than limits on issues. As an issue campaign, Clear the Bench could take in higher amounts. But there are no oversized donations so far. The question is whether a plan to unseat justices really counts as an "issue." Doesn't it really primarily concern candidates? We're looking at that. You know, what are the parameters?
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"They telegraphed their punch," says Arnold, who hadn't heard about the complaint until he was contacted by Westword. "Now that we're becoming successful and starting to bring in larger amounts of dollars, they decided they're going to go after us."
The amounts aren't huge at present. According to the Secretary of State's website, Clear the Bench has taken in just over $18,000 to date. However, "it's picking up," Arnold points out. "We've had our first large contributions that have come in over $500. I'm sure Colorado Ethics Watch went online, looked at the report, which we filed -- we've been very correct in following all the rules -- and thought, 'We need to scare people off.'"
That's not the goal, Toro stresses. "It's really about establishing the precedent. If it gets established that it's okay to run anti-judge campaigns by issue committees that can raise unlimited amounts of money, what's to stop somebody from writing a million-dollar check to defeat a judge they don't like?"
To Arnold, who promises to fight the complaint, Colorado Ethics Watch's motivations are different. In his view, "it's a clear sign of desperation -- and a clear sign that they're very concerned about the success of Clear the Bench Colorado."