Sunday, September 7, 2003

Disclose the names

Ohio: 'Justice for Sale' ads

The fall 2000 campaign for the Ohio Supreme Court seat of Justice Alice Robie Resnick only lasted a couple of months. But the controversy over the campaign has raged for nearly three years.

On Thursday, Ohio Elections Commission voted 4-2 to tell the Ohio Chamber of Commerce to disclose the individuals and companies who contributed to its Citizens for a Strong Ohio committee, which conducted a $4 million campaign to defeat the liberal-leaning Resnick. That campaign was marked - marred, rather - by its "Justice for Sale" TV ads that baldly accused Resnick of selling her votes on key cases that went against business interests.

It was a despicable tactic. Widespread revulsion over such ads has led to calls for a change in the way Ohio chooses its judges and funds judicial campaigns.

The elections commission did the right thing. The disclosure might prove embarrassing, shocking or even damaging to some interests - but it is clearly in the public's best interests to know as much as possible about just who's influencing big-budget political campaigns.

Despite Thursday's vote, donors won't be revealed anytime soon. The commission has to ask a Franklin County Common Pleas Court judge for an enforcement order, which means a new round of hearings.

The chamber says disclosure would violate donors' First Amendment right to freedom of speech. According to state campaign finance rules, issue advocacy groups do not have to disclose contributors. But if they advocate the election or defeat of a candidate - which the "Justice for Sale" ads obviously did, even they didn't explicitly say "Vote For" or "Vote Against" - all bets are off. Besides, the Chamber group has been inconsistent. In 2002, it agreed to disclose contributors to that year's campaign. What of their free speech?

The long-term solution is to clarify and strengthen Ohio's campaign finance laws. Gov. Bob Taft and Secretary of State Ken Blackwell have proposed bills to require disclosure by issue advocacy groups. This is long overdue. The more such information remains hidden, the greater the chances for mischief and scandal. As Blackwell has said, "sunshine is the best disinfectant." Let in the sunshine. Disclose the names.

Hot corner: Nipping at the heels of the newsmakers
Let's talk: Readers respond on the week's hot topic

Regional asset
Open up debate
Disclose the names
Congress should heed blackout's warning and act
Readers' Views