A supreme educational moment

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By Greg Romberg

The Colorado Supreme Court heard arguments on the law of unintended consequences last week at Evergreen High School.
Actually, the court heard arguments in the case of Colorado Ethics Watch vs. Senate Majority Fund LLC, Colorado Leadership Fund LLC, and the Office of Administrative Courts as part of its Courts in the Community program. EHS was the most recent site for Courts in the Community cases.  
In 1986, the Supreme Court began visiting high schools around Colorado and hears arguments in two actual cases. The program is intended to give students firsthand experience in how the judicial system works and to illustrate how disputes are resolved in a democratic society.  Students are able to listen to the cases as they are argued and see the system operate from a front-row seat that most of us never enjoy. Additionally, 30 EHS students were able to have lunch with the justices and delve into issues with our state’s top jurists.
In addition to the Ethics Watch case, the court also heard Mumford vs. Colorado, a case involving Miranda rights.
During the 2008 election, Colorado Ethics Watch challenged the spending of the Senate Majority Fund and the Colorado Leadership Fund, two 527 organizations operated in support of Republican legislative candidates. 527s operate under looser rules than candidates’ committees but aren’t allowed to advocate on behalf of specific candidates. While the two committees named in the suit support Republicans, supporters of Democrats have established and operate similar committees as well. In the case, Ethics Watch argued that 527s should not be able to say nice things about candidates that fall short of actually advocating their election. They’ve appealed the case to the Supreme Court after losing previously in both the district and appeals courts.
The case illustrates the latest in a long line of failed campaign finance attempts. As groups like Colorado Ethics Watch and Common Cause propose and pass campaign finance initiatives to try to limit the influence of money in politics, the people who are interested in influencing elections find new and creative ways to get involved. Limits on campaign contributions and spending to candidates and political parties led to much more utilization and reliance on 527s and later 501(c)(4)s. Each time we see reformers implement additional campaign finance restrictions, creative people find new ways to get around them. We’d be much better off with full disclosure of campaign spending.  
Thanks to the Supreme Court for bringing this case to Evergreen for students to see first hand. It was a civics lesson most of us will never see from such short range. I’ll be shocked if the Supreme Court overturns the previous rulings on the Ethics Watch case. The 527s followed the rules, however arcane they may be, in 2008. However, the broader case is how the law of unintended consequences kicked in as well-intentioned but naive campaign finance reform attempts continue to backfire by pushing more information about attempts to influence elections further away from the public.

Greg Romberg is president of Romberg and Associates, a government relations and public affairs firm. He lives in Evergreen with his wife, Laurie, and three daughters.