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Money Talks: Campaign money and Supreme Court justice candidates

The Michgian Hall of Justice, home of the Michigan Supreme Court.
MI Supreme Court
The Michgian Hall of Justice, home of the Michigan Supreme Court.

Lots of campaign money is being spent to influence the election of Michigan Supreme Court justices. That makes people wonder how judges can be impartial. After  all, some of the justices owe their position on the bench to people who have given them millions of dollars.

Every election cycle more and more money is being spent to help candidates for justice of the Michigan Supreme Court. With three seats on the court in contention this year, the amount of money is likely to break all records.

Rich Robinson is with the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a watchdog group. He says most of that money skirts the rules the candidates have to follow and filters donations through the political parties instead of going directly to the candidates for election ads.

“And the way they did this was not to say, ‘vote for/vote against’ a candidate, but to say ‘the candidate’s soft on crime,’ ‘this candidate’s in the pocket of the insurance companies,’ the kinds of specious claims that are made in judicial election campaigns.”

(2000 ad ) “Ever wonder why families never get a fair shake from the Michigan Supreme Court?” (actor portraying insurance executive) “Lucille! Where are my judges?!” (secretary) “Just where they’ve always been, right in your pocket.” -From the 'Justice at Stake Campaign'

In the 2010 Michigan Supreme Court election campaigns when candidates were vying for two seats, $11 million was spent on ads, most of them negative ads.

Rich Robinson found the candidates own campaign committees spent only a fraction of that money.

“It’s really all been off-shored to party committees and in some cases we saw non-profit corporations show up and do television election ads. So, the whole thing was over $11 million and barely a quarter of that was candidate committees.”

Most of the money was not reported to election officials. It didn’t have to be reported.

And the ads are just getting nastier.

“I must tell you, the negativity with respect to the state supreme court election decisions is staggering,” says David Magelby, Dean of Political Science at Brigham Young University and a visiting scholar at the University of Michigan.

“And in terms of cynicism, some notion of a judge being in somebody’s pocket, or a judge that’s a marionette on strings pulled by interest groups on the other side –and both sides do this often in black and white images that are stark and shocking—is striking.”


Ad clip #1

“Abused power. Repeatedly engaging in unfair conduct.”

Ad clip #2

“One judge did not put him in jail or have him deported.”

Ad clip #3

“The fairy tale: Sleeping Beauty. The nightmare: the sleeping judge.”

Ad clip #4

“Soft on crime for rappers, lawyers, and child pornographers.”

David Magelby says these negative ads hurt the integrity of the judicial process. He adds, if some of these ads were true, the judicial misconduct would warrant impeachment. And yet, impeachment is rare.

So, what’s that say about the credibility of the ads? But, they still run on TV. And donors contribute millions of dollars to pay for them.

What makes it worse is that under Michigan’s judicial Canon of Ethics, candidates for judge and justice are not supposed to speak about any matter that could come before them. So, they can’t tell you what they stand for except in the broadest terms. 

Derek Melot is with the online news outlet Bridge Magazine with the Center for Michigan. He says that leaves voters without a lot of information.

“So, in a sense, the voters are flying blind, even as they’re being pummeled with all of these ads either generated by the candidate committee, the party committee, or now outside interests via these super PACs that tell you who you’re supposed to vote for.”

So voters are left with looking up the record of decisions made by judicial candidates. And how many people are going to spend time doing that?

But, there are larger questions than misinforming voters by misleading ads. What do the people putting up millions of dollars for those ads expect from their donations?

Melot says it brings up the question whether the justices can be impartial.

“When you have seven justices who have to raise directly or indirectly huge sums of money in order to win their offices, there immediately comes the question of whom they’re going to be beholden to and what they’re going to do once they take those offices.”

Throwing a lot of cash around to benefit a person who could sit on the state’s highest court appears, at the very least, suspicious.

Betty Weaver is a former justice of the Michigan Supreme Court.

“It isn’t just the appearance of impropriety, this money does have influence. Common sense tells you it does. I’ve been there.”

LG: Do you think you’ve seen on the court because of a large donor at one time or another?  

“Yes, I do think that the ability to control who gets appointed and who gets elected has an effect on the decisions of the court, so you can pretty well guess how it’s going to go.”

The justices make a lot out of the fact that the candidates are not running in partisan elections. But, in reality, most of the time Republicans nominate candidates, Democrats nominate candidates even if the candidates themselves don’t proclaim party affiliation on the ballot. So party politics and all the money involved with that is ingrained in the campaigns for Supreme Court Justice.

Weaver says money is influential on the justices of the court because the justices need that money for re-election campaigns.

“The only thing a judge could really promise is this: that if you contribute to me, I may rule against you. That doesn’t raise money.”

So what can be done to reduce the influence of money?

Weaver and others say:

  • no matter how anyone gives money that benefits a judicial candidate, their name and the amount should be on the record.
  • Contributions should be reported in 24 hours and available online to everyone.
  • The records for every campaign should be kept by the Secretary of State for as long as a justice sits on the bench.

Weaver also thinks justices should serve only one term of perhaps eight years, maybe 14 years. That way a sitting justice doesn’t have to keep raising money for re-election.
There are other more dramatic ways of getting money out of the campaigns for Supreme Court Justices. Different states select their judges in different ways, including non-partisan commissions.

Without at least some of those changes, when a case reaches the Supreme Court in Michigan, no one really knows if a case is being decided strictly on the merits, or because of someone’s hidden political donation and its influence.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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