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NRA Working to Elect Pro-Gun Judges and Prosecutors

David Keene

SOURCE: AP/Ed Andrieski

David Keene, president of the National Rifle Association, speaks during an exclusive interview with Associated Press reporters in Denver on Thursday, February 7, 2013.

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The National Rifle Association has funneled millions of dollars to a front group that spends its money electing judges and state attorneys general who are tough on crime—unless those crimes involve violations of gun-violence prevention laws. The Law Enforcement Alliance of America was founded with funding from the NRA in 1991, while Congress was debating the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act. Police associations such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police had come out strongly in favor of the Brady Act, and relations with the NRA were strained after the NRA opposed a 1986 bill to ban “cop killer” bullets that can pierce body armor. So the NRA founded the Law Enforcement Alliance of America and claimed that it represented the “average cop”—who supposedly opposed gun-violence prevention.

Because the Law Enforcement Alliance of America refuses to disclose the sources of its funding, it is difficult to discern how much money the NRA has given the organization. The NRA’s tax documents, however, reveal that it gave at least $2 million to the alliance between 2004 and 2010. Previous reports indicate that the NRA donated $500,000 annually to the organization from 1995 to 2004, which would total more than $6 million.

The Law Enforcement Alliance of America now claims tens of thousands of members, and its website states that it believes in “the right to self-defense” and that “criminals, especially violent ones, deserve to be punished—swiftly and severely!” The alliance has opposed common-sense gun-violence prevention measures such as background checks and keeping guns out of the hands of people on the federal government’s “Terrorist Watchlist.”

Soon after it was founded in 1991, the Law Enforcement Alliance of America supported several lawsuits to keep cities and counties from banning assault weapons. In a 2000 California Supreme Court case, for example, the group opposed the sentencing of a 16-year-old California teen to a “juvenile camp program” after police searched his room while he was on probation and found a semiautomatic rifle with a “banana clip,” which can hold dozens of bullets. The supported cases, many of them in California, resulted in few legal victories for the Law Enforcement Alliance of America, in part because the U.S. Supreme Court had yet to recognize the Second Amendment as an individual right—it didn’t do so until 2008. After these early legal setbacks, the organization turned its focus to electing judges.

The Law Enforcement Alliance of America has spent big money on recent state supreme court races, shelling out millions of dollars for ads that helped to elect three judges to the Mississippi Supreme Court. The group spent nearly half a million dollars in 2012 alone to elect Justice Josiah Coleman to the Mississippi high court. The organization has possibly spent even more money to elect pro-gun state attorneys general.

By funding the Law Enforcement Alliance of America, the NRA has helped purchase ads supporting pro-gun candidates for state supreme courts and state attorneys general. Like other interest groups that have funded judicial candidates whose views conform to their agendas, the values of the Law Enforcement Alliance of America and the NRA have been reflected in many of the rulings from these judges and prosecutors. The officials funded by the alliance have granted broad rights to gun owners and curtailed the rights of criminal defendants.

Attorneys general funded by Law Enforcement Alliance of America fight for more guns

The state of New York responded to the tragic elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, with a new law to prevent gun violence, prompting Republican Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott to run ads in New York-area media asking, “Is Gov. Cuomo looking to take your guns?” The ads also invited “Law abiding New York gun owners looking for lower taxes and greater opportunity” to move to Texas.

Abbott was first elected in 2002, after the Law Enforcement Alliance of America ran ads attacking his opponent as a personal injury lawyer who “made millions suing doctors, hospitals, and small businesses,” while promoting Abbott as a candidate who “supports the swift and aggressive prosecution of sexual predators and child pornographers.”

Since taking office Abbott has expanded Texans’ right to pack heat. In November 2012 he issued an opinion stating that employers could not enact policies that prohibited employees from keeping concealed weapons in their vehicles. Even if employers were required to promulgate security plans that complied with federal antiterrorism laws, Abbott concluded that these policies could not stop employees from keeping loaded guns in their cars.

Abbott has also acted to limit the power of municipalities to protect their citizens from guns. Travis County, Texas was recently considering a proposal to keep gun shows out of county-owned facilities such as the convention center in Austin. A concerned citizen had warned the county commissioners in December 2012 that more guns could flood the area due to the “gun show loophole,” which allows purchasers of guns at gun shows to avoid federally mandated background checks. Abbott warned the county to “be ready for a double-barreled lawsuit” if they declined to host the gun shows, so the county backed off; the Austin convention center hosted the first of a series of gun shows on January 26, 2013. Abbott also spearheaded an amicus brief on behalf of dozens of state attorneys general in McDonald v. Chicago, a case in which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Chicago’s law banning handguns.

Former Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, also a Republican, was elected the same year as Abbott with the aid of the Law Enforcement Alliance of America. His campaigns have also received $11,000 directly from the NRA. Upon taking office, Kilgore moved to limit the reach of the “Uniform Machine Gun Act,” which prohibits “aggressive” use of a machine gun. The law says that “empty or loaded shells … in the immediate vicinity” of a machine gun creates a presumption of “aggressive” use. Nevertheless, Kilgore concluded that “there are no provisions that criminalize the discharge or firing of a machine gun in the Commonwealth for nonaggressive or nonoffensive purposes.” Kilgore ruled that the person firing the machine gun would merely have to rebut the presumption that the firing was aggressive.

Kilgore also issued a ruling that Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation had no power to ban concealed handguns in state parks. While noting that the department had the authority to issue safety regulations for parks, Kilgore opined that “a person’s privilege to carry a concealed handgun is considered universal.”

Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette of Michigan was elected in 2010 after the Law Enforcement Alliance of America ran ads attacking his opponent. In 2011 he granted gun owners in his state the right to use silencers if licensed by the federal government. The press release from Schuette’s office quoted an NRA spokesperson describing silencers as “useful safety devices.”

In addition to funding the Law Enforcement Alliance of America, the NRA has donated millions of dollars directly to candidates in state races, including dozens of attorneys general. In 2009 23 attorneys general wrote to President Barack Obama to oppose renewal of the federal ban on assault weapons. Of the 21 elected attorneys general who signed the letter, 14 had received money from the NRA.

At the same time they fought restrictions on guns, these NRA-funded attorneys general took a harsh stance toward criminal defendants. In a particularly egregious example, Attorney General Abbott stopped an investigation by the Texas Forensic Science Commission into the conviction of Cameron Todd Willingham, who many believe was wrongfully executed in 2004 for killing his family. Willingham was convicted of starting a fire that killed his wife and three young daughters on December 23, 1991, but experts have harshly criticized the investigation. One nationally renowned investigator reviewed the evidence and concluded that the fire was an accident, which “explained why there had never been a motive for the crime.” The investigator concluded “that there was no evidence of arson, and that a man who had already lost his three children … was about to be executed based on ‘junk science.’” Despite these concerns, Abbott halted the commission’s investigation into the evidence used to convict Willingham, ruling that legislators intended the commission to limit its investigations to evidence introduced after the commission was created in 2005.

Law Enforcement Alliance of America helps elect judges who favor guns and prosecutors

Ten years ago gun dealers were facing lawsuits in West Virginia and Pennsylvania involving the sale of guns to “straw purchasers,”—gun traffickers who buy guns on behalf of convicted felons who cannot buy guns themselves. And in Washington state, families of the victims of the “D.C. Sniper” sued the Tacoma, Washington, gun dealer who supplied the weapon used in the shooting spree. In Washington and Pennsylvania, pro-gun groups have spent money to elect their preferred judges.

Many of these lawsuits also included the gun manufacturers as defendants, alleging that they had a responsibility to ensure dealers were selling their products responsibly. The Violence Policy Center recently issued a report outlining how the NRA has “received millions of dollars from the gun industry,” including from manufacturers and dealers. As stated above, the NRA gave money to the Law Enforcement Alliance of America, and since the alliance refuses to disclose its donors, it could also have received money directly from the gun manufacturers and dealers. The Law Enforcement Alliance of America, in turn, spent money to elect pro-gun judges in states such as Mississippi and Pennsylvania, where gun manufacturers and dealers were facing lawsuits.

The three lawsuits mentioned above were settled, but one gun dealer in Mississippi recently had its day in court. A Wal-Mart store was sued when an employee knowingly sold ammunition to a straw purchaser who bought the bullets for his underage friend. The bullets were then used in a murder, and the victim’s family sued the store. The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled in September 2012 that the murder was not a foreseeable cause of the illegal sale. Given that the Law Enforcement Alliance of America has spent more money in Mississippi Supreme Court races than any other group in recent years, it is not surprising that gun-violence prevention advocates have had more success with similar lawsuits in other states.

The ruling was joined by Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Randy “Bubba” Pierce, a “tough on crime” judge elected to the court in 2008 after the Law Enforcement Alliance of America spent $660,000 on his behalf. Justice Pierce joined the majority in two 2012 cases that limited a defendant’s right to confront expert witnesses on which the state’s evidence relies. Pierce also voted with the majority in a 2011 opinion (written by another alliance-funded jurist, Justice Jess Dickinson) that rejected an equal protection challenge to a prosecutor’s decisions in selecting a jury. The dissent argued that all of the prosecutor’s justifications for striking potential African American jurors were just a pretext for eliminating them.

Justice Pierce was elected after the Law Enforcement Alliance for America ran ads attacking his 2008 opponent, incumbent Justice Oliver Diaz. The alliance spent more on television ads in this race “than all the other candidates and independent groups put together.” The alliance’s ads said Justice Diaz was “voting for” both a rapist and a “baby killer,” referring to Justice Diaz’s dissents in two cases—one in which the majority refused to allow DNA testing and one in which he argued that the court should stay an execution pending a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court. Some television stations pulled the ads because a state committee found the ads were false and in violation of state ethics rules. In an interview, Justice Diaz said the alliance’s influence in Mississippi is “massive” thanks to the amount of air time it has purchased.

In 2001 the Law Enforcement Alliance of America ran similar attack ads that helped Republicans take control of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. One of the ads the alliance ran on behalf of Justice Michael Eakin suggested that his opponent was soft on crime and had voted to overturn a murder conviction on a technicality. Justice Eakin, on the other hand, was described by the organization as “a patriot, a prosecutor and a tough-on-crime judge.” After the ad aired for 10 days, a judge ordered the Law Enforcement Alliance of America to stop running it because the group had violated Pennsylvania campaign-finance law.

The controversial attack ads in Pennsylvania came just months after a lawsuit was filed on behalf of Nafis Jefferson, a 7-year-old child killed after another child found a gun and fired it at his head. The victim’s family sued the Philadelphia gun store which had sold “at least ten guns” to an illegal gun trafficker who resold them to “convicted criminals, drug users and dealers”—who could not purchase guns legally or wanted to “avoid a paper trail.” The suit was settled a few years later, after the alliance helped to elect Justice Eakin—therefore securing a Republican majority—to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Once on the bench, Justice Eakin became a reliable vote for limiting the constitutional rights of the accused. He authored a 2003 opinion in which the court overturned decades of precedent that assured defendants a speedy arraignment. Before Justice Eakin’s opinion, the law forbade the introduction of any statements made six hours after arrest but before the accused was arraigned. The dissent argued that without “reasonable and clear time restraints,” the police are more likely to use “the coercive effect of prolonged police interrogation, which in turn, will yield a greater pool of unreliable confessions.”

The Law Enforcement Alliance of America also used attack ads to help Republican judges obtain a majority on the Michigan Supreme Court in 2010. One of its ads accused Judge Denise Langford-Morris, an African American Democrat, of being “soft on crime for rappers, lawyers, and child pornographers.” After Langford-Morris lost the race, the Republican-controlled court acted to limit the rights of people accused of crimes. In 2012, for example, the court ruled that evidence of a criminal defendant’s prior acts of “sexual misconduct against a minor” can be used as evidence against the defendant under a state law permitting such evidence. The dissenting judges argued the statute violated the state constitution’s separation of powers, which grants judges the authority to determine the rules of evidence. The dissent quoted a federal court that decreed that, “A defendant must be tried for what he did, not for who he is.”

The Washington Supreme Court has not yet seen any spending from the Law Enforcement Alliance of America, but another pro-gun group, the Washington Gun Owners Action League, was the largest single donor to candidates in the 2010 race. In March 2012 the court declined to review a ruling that struck down Seattle’s ban on guns in public parks. In a one-week period in January 2013, two groups of middle schoolers were robbed at gunpoint in a Seattle park.

Law Enforcement Alliance of America pioneers secretive spending in judicial races

The Law Enforcement Alliance of America was one of the first “independent” groups to spend big money on state supreme court races. When the organization started running ads in judicial races in 2000 and 2002, some state regulators took action. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania sued the organization for soliciting contributions in Pennsylvania without registering with the commonwealth, which is required by state law. The group conceded that it violated Pennsylvania law in its 2002 settlement with the commonwealth. Some candidates attacked by the alliance allege that some of its ads were actually paid for by corporate groups. Without disclosure from the Law Enforcement Alliance of America, however, voters cannot be sure who is funding these attack ads.

Kirk Watson, the Texas attorney general candidate that Abbott defeated in 2002, sued the Law Enforcement Alliance of America, alleging that it used corporate funds for its attack ads in violation of state election laws that forbid corporate electioneering. The alliance was embroiled in the controversy surrounding former Rep. Tom Delay (TX), the former Republican majority leader who is currently serving time for money laundering related to a campaign finance scandal. A grand jury investigated possible “coordination” of campaign ads between Republican candidates and the Law Enforcement Alliance of America, the Texas Association of Business, and Texans for Republican Majority. State and federal law prohibits “independent” organizations from coordinating with candidates because coordination would effectively allow candidates to circumvent any limits on campaign fundraising.

Seven years after Watson’s suit was filed, the Law Enforcement Alliance of America is still fighting to keep secret the source of its funding for the ads. The Texas Court of Appeals ruled that the group must disclose certain information about who paid for the ads at issue in the lawsuit. The decision is currently pending before the Texas Supreme Court, which is composed solely of conservative Republicans. The high court will hopefully be more concerned with protecting the judiciary’s power to order the disclosure of relevant evidence than with the political clout of the Law Enforcement Alliance of America.

 

 

 

 

A Texas newspaper noted that prosecutors “hypothesized” that the Law Enforcement Alliance of America received $4.5 million from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to pay for its ads in the 2002 Texas Attorney General election. Some press reports have also alleged that the Chamber funds some of the alliance’s ads in other states. An article in The Wall Street Journal noted that the Chamber of Commerce uncharacteristically failed to spend money in the 2002 Mississippi Supreme Court race, and it discussed concerns that the Law Enforcement Alliance of America’s ads in Mississippi were “being underwritten by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.” The alliance has been criticized for refusing to provide certain IRS forms in the manner required by federal law.

So in addition to pushing for more guns on the street, the Law Enforcement Alliance of America may also be doing the bidding of corporate interest groups—a far cry from the organization’s professed mission of representing the interests of the “average cop.” The Law Enforcement Alliance of America has also taken controversial positions on issues that have nothing to do with guns or crime, such as its support of a 1996 federal statute to allow states to ban undocumented children from public schools. Without disclosure of the alliance’s donors, voters who see the organization’s attack ads will have no idea who paid for the ads, and corporations and pro-gun groups can anonymously influence courts and prosecutors across the country.

Since the Law Enforcement Alliance of America was launched with NRA funding in 1991, restrictions on political spending by corporations and independent spending groups have been struck down by federal courts in cases such as Citizens United. The NRA has been a vocal opponent of proposed legislation to shed some light on the opaque funding of independent spenders. Without more effective disclosure rules, elections for judicial and prosecutorial offices can expect more attack ads from anonymous donors intent on shaping our state justice systems.

Billy Corriher is the Associate Director of Research for Legal Progress at the Center for American Progress.

Endnotes

[1] Eliza Newlin, “NRA aids new gun group,” National Journal, May 18, 1991, pg. 1185.

[2] Michael Orey, “Business Targets Judicial Race in ‘Tort Mecca,’” The Wall Street Journal, October 30, 2002, p. B1.

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