Gavel Grab

Archive for the 'Disclosure' Category

MI Senate Resists Greater Disclosure of Election Spending

The Republican-led Michigan state Senate has passed a bill that would exempt disclosure of spending for “issue ads,” even as Republican Secretary of State Ruth Johnson sought an administrative rules change to require campaign finance reporting by groups that air the ads.

Currently,  any ad that does not endorse a candidate is classified in Michigan as an issue ad, and there are no disclosure requirements for the donors who fund these ads. This kind of advertising has attracted the attention of defenders of fair and impartial courts, including Justice at Stake.

Earlier this year, the Michigan State Bar asked the  Secretary of State for  a declaratory ruling that would require donors to disclose their spending in judicial elections. Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice, a JAS partner organization, submitted a letter to Johnson saying a massive lack of disclosure of judicial electioneering spending in Michigan fosters negative advertising that in turn harms public confidence in fair and impartial courts (see Gavel Grab). 

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Report: A River, a Court, and a Flow of Outside Money

An intriguing look at how outside money can affect judicial elections comes from a joint NPR and Center for Responsive Politics report. Zeroing in on a case involving the Au Sable River in Michigan, the report says debate over the river’s protection was “unexpectedly influenced by largely invisible social welfare organizations” that are not required to disclose their donors.

That’s because Justice Alton Davis of the Michigan Supreme Court wrote a ruling that favored fly-fishing enthusiasts who wanted to protect the river. He also was targeted in the 2010 Supreme Court election. Out of state money flowed into that contest. Justice Davis was defeated. When a new high court looked at the issue again, it ruled against the fly-fishing enthusiasts.

A negative ad against Justice Davis was aired by the American Justice Partnership, a social welfare organization that targets liberal judges for defeat. “That case about the Au Sable River wasn’t anywhere on its radar,” NPR reports. Instead, Dan Pero, the Partnership’s president, told NPR, “Business, frankly, got tired of getting slapped around on these activist courts and decided to support candidates that had a philosophy that they felt was more rule of law, and they started contributing to those endeavors.” Read more

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No Disclosure of Judicial Applicants’ List in Rhode Island

Under a newly revised state Access to Public Records Act, the Judicial Nominating Commission has declined to disclose the full list of names of applicants for an opening on the Rhode Island Superior Court, and questionnaires completed by those applicants.

According to the Providence Journal, which requested that the information be disclosed, the executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island voiced disappointment.

“For the integrity of our judicial nominating process, it is too bad the JNC does not believe that the public interest is served by knowing who is competing for these important positions,” John Marion said. “We believe it is necessary for the public to know who applies for these judicial appointments and compare them to who is granted interviews in order to foster public confidence in the process.” Read more

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JAS, Partner Groups Seek Greater Judicial Election Spending Disclosure

Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice are stating their strong support for a declaratory ruling, sought by the Michigan State Bar, to bring  greater disclosure of judicial election spending in the state.

The State Bar has asked the Michigan Secretary of State for  a declaratory ruling that would require donors to disclose their spending in judicial elections. In a letter on Friday to Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, the groups said a massive lack of disclosure of judicial electioneering spending in Michigan fosters negative advertising that in turn harms public confidence in fair and impartial courts:

“In Michigan’s Supreme Court elections, political parties and special interest groups are spending record amounts on television ads that are electioneering by any reasonable definition, and the vast majority of this spending is undisclosed. As a result of lax disclosure requirements, Michigan has been buffeted by extreme spending and negative ads whose buyers are shielded by anonymity. Read more

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Commentary: Secret Judicial Election Spending Can Fuel Shock, Outrage

The Michigan State Bar’s recent request for a ruling (see Gavel Grab) that would bring greater disclosure of judicial election spending is making waves.

Phil Power, founder of a think tank called the Center for Michigan, is a former newspaper publisher. Here’s how he vividly spelled out the stakes of massive hidden spending in judicial elections in a commentary for Bridge magazine, which the Center publishes:

“How would you feel if you had a case in court — and suddenly realized that the judge’s campaign for office had been generously and secretly backed by the party opposing your lawsuit?

“’Shocked, outraged and mad as hell’ is probably an understatement! Well, now for the really shocking part. In Michigan that can actually happen. It is entirely possible for donors to make big contributions to judicial campaigns in secret.” Read more

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MI Bar Leader: Who’s Behind Judicial Campaign Ads?

The Michigan State Bar recently asked the Secretary of State for a declaratory ruling that would require donors to disclose their spending in judicial elections (see Gavel Grab). In an interesting interview, State Bar President Bruce Courtade told Bridge magazine why this disclosure is important:

“Imagine how an average citizen would feel finding out by chance after trial that the judge hearing his case had been supported to the tune of thousands of dollars, or more, by his opponent. Or, if a voter made a decision on how to vote in a judicial election based on a series of seemingly objective advertisements only to find out that the ads were paid for by anonymous donors who really were supporting the other candidate’s position. But in Michigan, with dark money allowed in judicial campaigns, you would never have any way of knowing in either case. The public needs to know who is behind those campaign ads.”

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Ruling for Greater Judicial Election Spending Disclosure Sought in MI

The Michigan State Bar is asking the Secretary of State for a declaratory ruling that would require donors to disclose their spending in judicial elections.

“When the source of judicial campaign expenditures is hidden from the public, parties cannot know whether their due process rights are compromised by their opponents’ campaign support for the judge hearing their case,” Michigan Bar President Bruce Courtade and the group’s executive director, Janet Welch, wrote in a letter to Secretary of State Ruth Johnson.

According to a Detroit Free Press column by Brian Dickerson, the group asked Johnson to reverse a declaratory ruling by her predecessor that has exempted the majority of campaign spending in judicial elections from public disclosure.

“People appearing before a judge need to know what expenditures have been made that might entitle them to seek that judge’s disqualification,” Courtade told the Free Press. “Full disclosure is important to the public perception of an open and level playing field.”

A State Bar of Michigan blog post about the issue was headlined, “State Bar To SOS: Update Campaign Finance Act Interpretation, Cover Third Party Issue Ads in Judicial Campaigns.” The Michigan Campaign Finance Network has reported  that nearly $14 million spent on last year’s state Supreme Court election was hidden from public view (see Gavel Grab). MCFN is a Justice at Stake partner organization.

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Editorial Commends Enhanced Transparency in IA Judicial Screening

A Des Moines Register editorial used a touch of humor when summing up a recent controversy over apparently off-limits questioning of judicial candidates by two screening commission members. Declared the headline: “Public now knows when dumb questions are asked.”

The judicial screening commission members questioned Iowa Court of Appeals candidates about church involvement and covenant marriage vows  (see Gavel Grab). The episode also highlighted appointments made to the commission by Gov. Terry Branstad. The editorial concluded:

“The best that can be said of this episode is that the public was made aware of the inappropriate questions because these interviews are now open to the public, and they are carried live on the Iowa Judicial Branch website. Before the court moved toward more transparency in judicial nomination interviews, the public would have never known what sort of questions candidates were asked.”

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Test for IA Disclosure Law Seen in Court Elections Spending Complaint

An activist’s complaint with an Iowa election watchdog agency may provide a test of an Iowa disclosure law passed in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, a Des Moines Register editorial says.

The topic is in the news because of a collateral development. This week, the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board voted against removing its executive director from a probe of the complaint, the Associated Press reported.

In the complaint, activist Fred Karger alleges that the National Organization for Marriage violated state law by failing to disclose all of its donors when it pushed in 2010 and 2012 retention elections to oust four Iowa Supreme Court justices.

The ethics board’s executive director once clerked for one of the justices who was removed in 2010, and NOM sought her removal based on that employment and also on remarks she made in August that NOM contended were prejudicial.

The Register editorial says the recent proceedings make it clear that NOM is playing hardball in the matter. It says similar disclosure laws passed after Citizens United are coming under attack by special interest groups around the country, and hard questions will be weighed about Iowa’s law: Read more

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Big-Spending ‘Extravaganza’ in N.C. Court Election Next Year?

When four seats on the seven-member North Carolina Supreme Court come up for election in 2014, a high-spending, multiple-candidate election may unfold.

“[A]lready Republican candidates for the 2014 high court elections are gearing up for what might be an extravaganza — more candidates and lots more money, particularly if Gov. Pat McCrory signs into law proposals passed by the General Assembly [to] unleash campaign fundraising,” Sharon McCloskey wrote on Monday in the Progressive Pulse, a publication of North Carolina Policy Watch. On that day, McCrory signed the legislation.

As proof that Republicans may go gung-ho to keep or expand a 4-3 majority on the court, McCloskey cites a memo by a Republican consultant entitled, “How the North Carolina Republican Party Can Maintain Political Power for 114 Years.” The memo’s Rule #5 admonishes, “Lose the courts, lose the war.”

The election reform law that McCrory signed into law eliminates public financing for judicial elections, as Gavel Grab has mentioned earlier. It also raises a ceiling on the donations an individual can give to a candidate from $1,000 to $5,000 per election cycle and cuts back on campaign finance disclosure requirements. Read more

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