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Money Mixes Up Missouri Circuit-Court Race


And now another story of big, political money coming to small-town America. In Cole County, Missouri, a circuit court judge is fighting to stay on the bench. Her challenger was underfunded until he got some outside help. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Patricia Joyce has been a Cole County judge since 1994. In August, she campaigned for reelection at the county fair. Her campaign manager is Dale Doerhoff.

DALE DOERHOFF: If you go to the Cole County fair, you buy something if you're a candidate. She bought a goat. She gave it back to the little girl who raised it. But yeah, she's trying every way she can to get out there and interact with the people as much as possible.

OVERBY: But for the final month of the campaign, she's up against this...


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Radical environmentalists think Joyce is so groovy. And the lawyers funding her campaign do, too. Pat Joyce ruled against farmers...

OVERBY: The ad, with its 1960s flower-power images, comes from the Missouri arm of the Republican State Leadership Committee, a political group based in Washington. It raises money to help state and local GOP candidates around the country. Matt Walter, president of the RSLC, says the Cole County ad is part of a new judicial fairness initiative.

MATT WALTER: It's something we launched earlier this year in response to the flood of dollars going into judicial elections from rich, liberal billionaires and union officials and trial lawyers who practice in front of these judges.

OVERBY: He says more money leads to more information, better informed voters and higher turnout. He poses this question...

WALTER: Why all of the anxiety now about trying to have more information?

OVERBY: But money itself is the problem, according to Bert Brandenburg.

BERT BRANDENBURG: Like the rest of politics, outside groups are muscling their way into judicial races.

OVERBY: Brandenburg is the director of the advocacy group Justice at Stake. It catalogs the attacks financed by business groups and trial lawyers, unions, state parties and so-called social welfare groups which don't disclose their donors.

BRANDENBURG: This goes far beyond information. It's an attempt to actually buy a seat on the court.

OVERBY: So here's how it unfolded in Cole County - Democratic incumbent Patricia Joyce's campaign went into October with $17,000 in the bank. Republican challenger Brian Stumpe's campaign was $8,600 in the red. Then, Stumpe got $100,000 from the Republican State Leadership Committee. And by last Thursday, the RSLC had put even more than that into its state PAC - nearly $170,000 for the attack ad and some mailers, with plenty of cash left over. Again, Matt Walter at the RSLC.

WALTER: What we're doing is pointing out the judicial predisposition and the facts involved so that voters can make their own decision.

OVERBY: Why the big fight for a circuit court seat? Cole County includes the state Capitol in Jefferson City, so the county judges handle lawsuits pertaining to state laws and ballot initiatives. Pat Joyce is the last Democrat on the bench. Eli Yokley edits the blog politicmo.com. He says that even in that political setting...

ELI YOKLEY: It's just an insane amount of money that is going into this judicial race here. I don't think you can stress that point enough of how much money this actually is in this race.

OVERBY: Five years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court made a West Virginia judge recuse himself after a defendant spent $3 million to promote the judge for reelection. The RSLC says it doesn't let donors earmark money for specific races. This month's batch of benefactors won't be publicly known until after Election Day. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.
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