Commentary
12:49 pm
Wed June 15, 2011

Fixing Our Courts

How much do you know about Michigan’s Supreme Court, and how someone gets to become a justice?

If you asked me that back when I was in high school, or even college, I probably would have said something like, “uh, I guess they select the best and wisest judges in the state, and we elect them.”

My guess is that a lot of people still think that. In fact, that was once somewhat true. But today, almost all the candidates for our state’s highest court are selected by the people who run our major political parties. They select them on the basis of ideology, and also if they have a politically popular, usually Irish last name. Then, millions of dollars are spent to try and persuade the voters to elect them.

And if that weren’t bad enough, citizens have no way of finding out who is paying for what is now the majority of judicial campaign spending. Michigan doesn’t require these so-called independent electioneering committees to disclose who their donors are.

Why not?  Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a state could require the disclosure of the names of donors who pay for any form of political communication, whether backing a cause or a candidate.  The Michigan legislature could pass a law tomorrow to require this. But they aren’t willing to do this, for one bad reason. Many of the same interest groups that give money to their campaigns also give money to supreme court and other judicial races.

And they don’t  want people finding out about it. Imagine, say, that I’m a big industrial polluter and want to give money to a John Doe, Supreme Court candidate who I think will rule against environmental legislation. I don’t want his opponent finding out it is my money supporting him.  So I have someone establish a committee called the Fresh Air Fund for Michigan.

I give them lots of money, which they spend on John Doe’s campaign, and nobody’s the wiser. Does that sound like the kind of justice we want? Current Michigan Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Kelly doesn’t think so. She and James Ryan, a senior federal court of appeals judge, are trying to improve the system. They’ve established a Judicial Selection Task Force that’s conducting a year-long study aimed at finding a better way of selecting justices for our highest court. Yesterday, they led a day-long seminar at Wayne State University’s law school. Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was the headliner; she thinks a system of appointing the judges would be better.

The other panelists either urged change, or said that while the present system was bad, anything else might be worse.

What fascinated me most was the revelation that in a few short years spending on Michigan Supreme Court races has shot up from a few hundred thousand dollars to tens of millions per election.

A few years ago, a West Virginia man whose livelihood had been ruined by a rival company successfully sued them -- only to have his verdict overturned by a state Supreme Court whose key members took money from and partied with his opponent.

Michigan now is a judicial ethical disaster waiting to happen. It’s up to us to fix it, as soon as we possibly can.