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A recent attack ad against 8th Circuit Appellate Judge Jane Kelly is yet another new low in the unfolding Supreme Court vacancy drama.
By twisting and distorting Kelly's role as a court-appointed defense attorney in a high-profile federal child pornography case, the ad was an ugly attempt not only to smear a potential Supreme Court nominee, but also to misinform the American people.
The ad was bankrolled by the Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative, dark-money organization that focuses on the judicial system and keeps its donors hidden. No doubt, they considered it a pre-emptive strike against a SCOTUS nominee that might have made it difficult for Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley to uphold his pledge to block any judge nominated by President Barack Obama. In 2013, Grassley enthusiastically supported Kelly's appointment to the 8th Circuit, for which she was unanimously confirmed.
Grassley must publicly disavow the negative ad and the group responsible for it.
Originally founded as the Judicial Confirmation Network to advocate for timely up-or-down Senate votes on the nominees of President George W. Bush, the revamped organization has since spent millions in Wisconsin, Michigan and other states to directly and indirectly promote like-minded attorneys general and a variety of elected court officials.
But the Kelly ad marked the first time since the 2010 Citizens United decision that one of the 501(c)(4) organizations bolstered by relaxed campaign spending and disclosure laws took direct aim at a person merely rumored to be a SCOTUS candidate.
That Kelly was not ultimately nominated by Obama to the high court vacancy does not erase the fact that this organization needlessly sought to harm a dedicated public servant and obscure vital principles of our democracy. Even in the ethically questionable universe of political interest groups, it sets a foolhardy precedent.
A fundamental tenet of the U.S. Constitution and justice system is that people have a right to legal counsel.
It is up to defense lawyers, like then-court-appointed Kelly, to fulfill this obligation by providing ardent representation to those who otherwise would stand alone against the resources of the government. Details of the alleged crime or wrongdoing, however horrific, do not erase this duty.
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