Gavel Grab

Archive for the 'Disclosure' Category

Michigan Governor Signs What Critics Call ‘Dark Money’ Bill

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (photo) has signed into law controversial legislation that would exempt disclosure of spending for “issue ads” and would double individual campaign contribution limits, according to

Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a Justice at Stake partner organization, wrote a letter to the editor of the Detroit Free Press that protested, “Gov. Snyder’s support of dark money taints his legacy.”

At, Snyder defended the legislation in an op-ed entitled, “New law increases transparency, upholds cornerstone of electoral system.” Read more

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JAS Partner Group Urges Veto of ‘Dark Money’ Bill in Michigan

Michigan’s legislature has sent to Gov. Rick Snyder controversial campaign finance legislation that would exempt disclosure of spending for “issue ads” and would double individual campaign contribution limits.

In The Detroit Free Press, Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network wrote a commentary urging Snyder to veto the measure. If the bill becomes law, Robinson said, it “would enable dark money to dominate Michigan’s political campaigns for the foreseeable future.”

According to Robinson, since 2003, “Undisclosed campaign ads masquerading as issue ads have … dominated every competitive state campaign. Over half of all spending in Michigan Supreme Court campaigns since 2004 has been off the books — including 75% of the spending in the 2012 campaign. … The statistical truth is that we don’t know half of who is funding our most important campaigns — or how those donors are rewarded.” Read more

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Atlantic: When Judges are not Immune to Money Interests

An Atlantic online article spotlights massive spending on state judicial elections — as highlighted by Justice at Stake — and some judges’ assets that may pose a conflict of interest as twin threats to fair and impartial courts.

The article is headlined, “How America’s Judges Are Being Bought Out: We think of courts as being immune to money interests. Some of them, as disclosure reports for state Supreme Court judges reveal, are not.” It focuses on a Center for Public Integrity report this week that gave 42 states and the District of Columbia failing grades as a part of an evaluation of disclosure requirements for high court judges (see Gavel Grab).

The article also provides a link to the “New Politics of Judicial Elections 2011-12” report compiled by JAS, the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Institute on Money in State Politics. The article states:

“In recent years, some judicial elections have begun to look just like political campaigns, complete with attack ads, political action committees, and millions of dollars in fundraising for candidates. The financial involvement of special-interest groups in state Supreme Court races across the country has blurred the boundaries between money and politics and justice, alarming citizens and ethicists alike.”

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Broad Coverage for Report on Judges and Disclosure

A report by the Center for Public Integrity that evaluates financial disclosure levels of judges on states’ highest courts (see Gavel Grab) has continued to make a big media splash across the country.

The report gave 42 states and the District of Columbia failing grades for judicial disclosure requirements, saying this made it difficult for the public to identify potential conflicts of interest on the bench.

In the (Jackson, Ms.) Clarion Ledger, Jimmie Gates discussed the report and called for strong requirements to help ensure impartial courts:

“If we care about a fair and impartial judiciary, we need to ensure that judges report any gifts they receive and whether they have any interest in any company that may have come before the court. We hope judges will always do the honorable thing Read more

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New Report Evaluates Disclosure Requirements for Judges

Forty-two states and the District of Columbia received failing grades from the Center for Public Integrity as a part of an evaluation of disclosure requirements for high court judges.  The Center found 35 examples of questionable gifts as well as caseloads that coincided with investments.  Though a few did better than the others, no state was able to earn an A or a B mark.

Even with limited information available the three years of personal finance disclosures investigated created a varied list of questionable activity.    This activity included judges that authored favorable opinions of companies they owned stock in along with other justices accepting lavish gifts from lawyers.  Enforcement of disclosure rules was also found to be problematic with 12 states relying on justices to enforce the ethics rules of the courts on themselves.

So far, the report has gotten media attention in states that received unfavorable marks including a piece on Nevada’s evaluation from the Las Vegas Sun.  For the full list of state grades, click here.

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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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