A month ago, Missouri GOP prosecutor Brian Stumpe had less than $100 on hand in his campaign to unseat Cole County Circuit Court Judge Patricia Joyce, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Now, just a few weeks later, he has received $100,000 — all of it funneled into his campaign by a national group, the Republican State Leadership Committee, which has spent a total of $200,000 so far in this race for a single state judgeship.
So just what the heck is going on? Democrats and liberals on the ground in Missouri would tell you that somebody is trying to purchase the judgeship, and they have some suspicions about some Koch-esque Missouri multi-millionaires who might be behind the RSLC’s interest in the race.
Why would they do that? Because Cole County, home to 75,000 people, contains Jefferson City, the Missouri state capital. So in most cases where somebody is suing the state government, those cases are heard in the Cole County Circuit Court. It is similar to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals at the federal level, in that case an appellate court with an outsized influence.
“If you sue the state of Missouri, if there’s a lawsuit in which you’re bringing a constitutional question or challenging ballot language or a fiscal note by a state auditor, those cases are directed to the Cole County Circuit Court,” Roy Temple, chairman of the Missouri Democratic Party, told TPM. “It is a judgeship that has statewide importance.”
Joyce is the only Democratic judge at the Cole County Circuit Court; her two colleagues are Republican. So ousting her would, in theory, be a significant win for Republicans looking to influence the outcome of the kind of cases Temple described. That helps explain why the Republican State Leadership Committee, which is currently chaired by former Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum and formerly chaired by Virginia GOP Senate candidate Ed Gillespie, would take an interest.
The big spending stirred outcry from Justice At Stake, a national group that advocates for “fair and impartial courts.”
“When political groups try to buy up courts like real estate, they’re pressuring judges to answer to politicians instead of the law and the Constitution,” Bert Brandenburg, the group’s executive director, said in a statement. “And when even local courts aren’t safe from big money pressure, every American should worry that their liberties could be for sale.”
Jill Bader, a spokesperson for the RSLC, who confirmed the $200,000 allocated for the race, told TPM that the group “elects Republicans to the offices of lieutenant governor, secretary of state, state legislator and the judiciary.” It also launched an initiative in 2014 specifically targeted to judicial races.
The group has gone up with a $100,000 buy for a psychedelic-flavored TV ad that accuses Joyce of being beholden to “radical environmentalists.”
Bader wouldn’t comment on whether any specific donations from any specific individuals had spurred its involvement in Cole County — “We have over 100,000 donors in all 50 states,” she said — but a few favored suspects have cropped up among those on the the left.
One in particular is Rex Sinquefield, who accumulated his wealth as a money management magnate and has become the biggest player in Missouri politics. According to the Kansas City Star, Sinquefield has given more than $30 million in disclosed donations to local candidates and political action committees in the last six years.
“He’s our local Koch,” Sean Nicholson, executive director of the liberal advocacy group Progress Missouri, told TPM. “He’s a part of that universe.”
Sinquefield is a big player in ballot initiatives, which means his causes often come up at the Cole County Circuit Court. According to the Center for Media and Democracy, Sinquefield spent $11 million in 2011 to boost a ballot initiative that prohibited some municipalities from instituting an income tax. He also gave $1.8 million to an anti-teacher union group in 2013, the Center reported.
Those are his two pet issues, Temple and Nicholson said. “The two things he cares about are eliminating the income tax forever,” Nicholson said. “He also is very interested in changing the laws on schools.”
According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Joyce issued a 2012 ruling that rewrote tax-related ballot initiative that Sinquefield backed, effectively neutering it.
He also has a history of six-figure donations to the RSLC. According to PoliticMo, Sinquefield gave $475,000 to the group in late October 2012, which meant the donation wasn’t made public until after the election. And RSLC gave a last-minute six-figure donation to the GOP candidate for Missouri secretary of state in 2012, according to the Huffington Post.
“This is the route the money has taken before,” Temple said. So far this year, though, according to the Post-Dispatch, Sinquefield hasn’t given any money to the RSLC. But the current filings only cover through August, per the newspaper.
But he isn’t the only suspect, Nicholson said. The Humphreys of Missouri, Ethelmae and David, who made their fortune through a roofing company, and Stanley Herzog are known big political spenders from the area. Ethelmae was, according to Mother Jones, an attendee at a 2010 Aspen summit hosted by the Koch brothers. Herzog, meanwhile, dropped $1 million in one swoop to Restore Our Future, the Mitt Romney super PAC in 2012, according to CBS. They have both been supporters of Show Me Better Courts, a political advocacy group that wants to reform the Missouri court system, Nicholson said.
TPM was unable to reach Sinquefield or Herzog for comment. Sinquefield has declined to comment to other news outlets about the RSLC’s contribution to Stumpe. Ron Cook, a spokesman for the Humphrey family’s TAMKO Building Products, told TPM: “The Humphreys family has not been nor will be involved.”
Wherever the money comes from, it worries Nicholson. “It certainly raises some red flags and concerns about the impartiality of the judge they’re trying to elect,” he said. “The whole idea of having an independent judiciary is everybody has a fair shake.”
“There’s a lot of concern about what this means,” he continued, “especially if we never find out the source of these funds.”
It is also a growing concern among political observers. Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote Thursday in The Atlantic about the RSLC getting involving in local judicial elections in Ohio, Michigan, Montana, North Carolina, New Mexico, and Texas.
“This will ultimately undermine the whole idea of an independent judiciary,” he warned, “which is the single most significant bedrock of a functioning democratic political system.”