The influence of money and politics in Michigan Supreme Court elections

Feb 18, 2013

A task force says electing Michigan Supreme Court justices should not be as partisan, or as much about money, as other political offices. But according to one watchdog group, last year the Michigan Supreme Court campaign was the most expensive, most secretive judicial election in America. Several recommendations to get some of the politics and secret money out of the Supreme Court elections were ignored by the legislature last year.

It’s coming up on a year since the Judicial Selection Task Force issued a report recommending changes to how we elect Michigan Supreme Court justices. Since then we elected three to the bench. Although the candidates ran on the non-partisan section of the ballot, politics was involved from the beginning.

“Michigan is unusual in that our Supreme Court race is so partisan. The candidates are nominated at a party convention,” said Susan Smith, President of the League of Women Voters of Michigan. Continuing, she said, “And, even though it doesn’t say on the ballot how they got nominated or which party nominated them, it’s really a farce, then, to put it up as a non-partisan election.”

And if politics is not far removed from electing Supreme Court justices, neither is money.

Rich Robinson operates the Michigan Campaign Finance Network and advised the Judicial Selection Task Force. At a recent seminar held by the task force he outlined the connection.

“From my perspective, if you’re talking about politics and you’re not talking about money, you’re not really talking about politics. And, our Supreme Court selection process is certainly political,” Robinson told a crowd gathered in Ann Arbor.

And not just because the candidates were nominated by the political parties. The candidate’s committees… all six of them, three Democrats and three Republicans, raised a total of $3.4 million. That money was actually just a fraction of the amount of money spent during the campaign. (See report here.)

“And there are no innocents in this. Both sides play this game. The Michigan Democratic State Central Committee spent $6.2 million that I could document on issue ads, the Republican Party $6.7 million and a D.C. based non-profit corporation called Judicial Crisis Network spent another million dollars,” Robinson said.

So, three out of four dollars spent to get the candidates elected was not spent by the candidates. It was spent by outside groups on so-called "issue ads." And none of that money has to be reported to elections officials. The only way Robinson knows about the money is that he went door-to-door to TV stations to see how much they spent and who bought ads like these.

Washington D.C. based Judicial Crisis Network ad: “My son’s a hero and fought to protect us. Bridget McCormack volunteered to help free a terrorist. How could you?”

Michigan Republican State Committee ad: “Johnson has a record of questionable judgment, putting communities at risk. McCormack volunteered to represent terrorists at Guantanamo Bay and fought to protect sexual predators. And Kelly is a former appointee of scandal ridden Wayne County Executive Bob Ficano. Tell Johnson, Kelly, and McCormack that Michigan families need judges to protect them, not criminals.”

Even the candidates and their organizers are not happy about this outside political money.

Mary Ann Sarosi was Senior Advisor for the campaign to elect Bridget McCormack who now sits on the Supreme Court.

“All those ads, those issue ads that came out, both sides whoever they were, they should be ashamed of what they put out,” Sarosi said.

Sarosi explained she, perhaps naively, went into the campaign thinking she would be arranging interviews for the candidate with journalists and trying to win the endorsements of editorial boards. Instead, a huge amount of time was spent raising money, some of it to respond to the issue ads from outside sources. She says at the end of the campaign some nasty things were said about other Supreme Court candidates, and now McCormack has to work with some of those former candidates.

“And they’re certainly not helpful to the collegiality that one needs when on gets to the court and you have to work with six other justices,” Sarosi said.

But the greater problem is the damage politics and money does to the reputation of the court.

Among the recommendations the Judicial Selection Task Force is making are these four points:

  1. It wants everyone who’s giving money to disclose who they are. Right now people who gave money secretly could have cases before the Supreme Court, putting impartiality into question.
  2. It wants an open primary system, no political party nominations.
  3. It wants the Secretary of State to issue a voter education guide.
  4. It wants a nomination commission to recommend candidates for vacancies. Right now Governor Snyder has an appointment to make and he can choose without the bipartisan public vetting the task force is recommending.

So far, the legislature has not introduced legislation for any of those recommendations.

Marilyn Kelly is a retired Michigan Supreme Court Justice and co-chair of the task force.

“We need bipartisan support for this kind of activity. Members of the commission, myself, and others went before various legislative committees after this report was issued last spring and asked them to consider legislation. They listened very nicely. They politely asked questions. But, nothing has happened yet,” Kelly explained.

Senator Glenn Anderson, a Democrat from Wayne County, attended one of the task force’s recent meetings and says the new legislature should take up some of the recommendations.

“I do think there’s the possibility on some of these issues. I know court reform has been an issue that I believe Democrats have felt pretty strongly about for a number of years, but I believe there are other people on the Republican side that would like to see greater integrity in the whole process of electing our Supreme Court judges,” Anderson said

Anderson added getting some of the politics and money out of how we elect Supreme Court justices is important.

“We have to realize that this has the potential of contaminating the whole system and undermining any confidence that the public has in our judicial system.”

Former Justice Marilyn Kelly says her group will keep pressing the issues.

“If we continue to keep the issues before the legislators, that they’ll eventually get around to voting on them,” Kelly said.

But since Republicans hold the majority of the Supreme Court, the Republican majority in the legislature might not see a reason to consider a lot of changes anytime soon.