SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The chairwoman of the agency that monitors campaign donations and political conflicts of interest in California said Tuesday that she intends to draw attention to the increasing partisanship of judicial elections and the potential influence of campaign contributors on the courts.
Ann Ravel said the California Fair Political Practices Commission plans to begin posting information about political donations to incumbent judges and judicial candidates on its website next year.
"It seemed to me there has not been a spotlight on this issue," she said in an interview with The Associated Press. "People should know if there are some interests that are providing a lot of campaign contributions."
Ravel was a deputy assistant U.S. attorney general handling civil cases in Washington, D.C., when Gov. Jerry Brown appointed her in February to head the commission that regulates campaign financing. The commission was created when voters approved the Political Reform Act of 1974, during Brown's first term as governor.
She said she became interested in judicial donations while serving in the early 1990s on the California Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation, an arm of The State Bar of California that reviews candidates being considered by the governor for appointments to judicial vacancies. She also served from 2002-2005 on the Judicial Council of California, which recommends ways to improve the judicial system.
The topic took on added urgency with recent elections in other states, including the highly partisan campaign earlier this year between Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser and challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg. The race was widely seen as a statement about Republican Gov. Scott Walker's legislation stripping many collective bargaining rights from most state workers.
While reviewing campaign contributions last month, Ravel found that at least two California judicial candidates already raised more than $100,000 toward their campaigns next year. One, former Democratic state Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla, had accumulated $250,000 in his account for a Contra Costa County judgeship.
"This is kind of consistent with what I think the future of campaign reform really is, and it is to inform the public," Ravel said. "It's more about disclosure."
While most voters realize that ballot initiatives and candidates for political office receive campaign donations, they often do not recognize that judicial races can be equally partisan, said Roman Porter, the commission's executive director.
"Nobody's paying attention to it. A lot of people presume that judges' races are uncontested and presume that nobody's giving them money to run for office," Porter said. "But they are elected offices and they do have some significant impact on the public."
The commission also is taking steps this fall to make California the first state to let people text campaign contributions to candidates in the same way they can text donations to charities. The donations show up on consumers' telephone bills for payment.
People might ignore traditional campaign solicitations that require them to send a check, donate online with a credit card or attend a fundraising event, she said.
"This provides an opportunity for young people and others who might be at a lower economic level in donations, or less politically involved to begin with," she said.
She hopes the ability to text donations — even in small amounts — will make more people feel invested in campaigns and thus persuade them to vote.
The Federal Elections Commission last year rejected a similar plan for federal candidates, and California's rule would not apply to them.
The FPPC intends to leave it up to campaigns and commercial providers to decide how to comply with California's campaign disclosure laws and how much to charge politicians for processing. The commission plans an Oct. 13 hearing as it prepares to allow the new contribution method in time for next year's elections.
Ravel also said she plans to bring experts together in April to consider ways to modernize the 37-year-old Political Reform Act, which she said has been amended more than 1,000 times.
"Many of the regulations are, to be charitable, incomprehensible and conflicting," she said.
In the meantime, she said she has asked her enforcement staff to shift its priorities from relatively minor violations of the act, such as failing to report contributions of more than $50, to enforce more serious offenses.
An investigator and an attorney are now devoted exclusively to investigating money laundering, conflicts of interest and other serious allegations. The commission also is working more closely with the state attorney general's office on those cases.