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State Bar asks for reversal of disclosure rule

Michigan Supreme Court
Michigan Supreme Court
The Michigan Supreme Court

The State Bar of Michigan says it’s time to end anonymous campaign spending in elections for judges and Supreme Court justices.

The State Bar is asking Michigan’s top elections official to require committees that pay for so-called “issue ads” to reveal their donors. That would require Secretary of State Ruth Johnson to reverse a 2004 rule issued by her predecessor that says the independent committees can keep their donors secret.        

Bruce Cortade is the president of the State Bar of Michigan. He says anonymous campaign spending undermines confidence in the legal system, and it's growing more common.

“During the last election cycle, with the Supreme Court elections, three-quarters of the money that was spent on the Supreme Court election could not be traced,” he says.

Cordade says there was also $2 million in untraceable funds spent in Oakland County’s  judicial races last year.

“And that’s the scary thing. With ‘dark money,’ you don’t know,” he says. “We don’t know if there’s been a big donor to a judge who has later appeared in front of that judge, and just the specter, the possibility of that happening, erodes public confidence in the system.”

“During the last election cycle, three-quarters of the money that was spent on the Supreme Court election could not be traced.”

Cortaid says there is no way of knowing whether or not a judge is aware of independent expenditures. 

Independent committees may spend unlimited amounts in campaign seasons as long as there is no formal coordination with a candidate’s official campaign committee. That’s true of other elections, as well, but Cortaid says the State Bar cannot by its own rules take a position on anonymous campaign spending in other races.

The Secretary of State’s office says a decision on changing the rule should be made within three months.  

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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