Gavel Grab

Editorials Seek Reform of Michigan's Judicial Elections

In the wake of a high-spending judicial election in Michigan, accompanied by a lack of campaign finance transparency, two local newspapers are urging important reforms.

A Holland Sentinel editorial condemned the “black hole of Michigan judicial campaign spending” and quoted Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a JAS partner group, about the problem:

“If you think rationally, the interests with the greatest incentive to try to drive the outcome of an election are those with a high-stakes case in the appeals pipeline. This anonymous spending disrupts the whole presumption of judicial impartiality. It’s a blight that the people of this state should not have to endure.”

MFCN said the six state Supreme Court candidates’ campaigns  reported raising $2.7 million, and the political parties poured another $10 million into “issue ads,” whose funders do not have to be reported under state law. In April, a bipartisan judicial selection task force made several recommendations, including the full disclosure of those funding state Supreme Court campaign ads, and the editorial echoed that call:

“The potential for perversion of justice is evident in this year’s secret campaign spending shows exactly why we should do that.”

An editorial in the (Adrian) Daily Telegram, meanwhile, recommended replacing Michigan’s judicial election system with an appointment system involving a non-partisan screening panel that makes recommendations to the governor, whose picks would be subject to Senate confirmation. The editorial found Michigan’s current system so wanting on many levels that one could almost believe a longstanding joke that “[t]o win open seats, it’s said, parties nominate female candidates with Scots-Irish surnames.” Bridget Mary McCormack won election to an open seat this year.

“It’s time to start picking courts based on merit rather than on ideology,” the editorial said. “If not, Michigan deserves to have a Supreme Court eventually determined by Celtic-sounding last names. It wouldn’t be much sillier than the system we already have.”

A joint analysis by Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice, another JAS partner group, said Michigan was home for the nation’s most costly judicial contest this year.

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