Gavel Grab

Editorials Scrutinize Big Spending in Judicial Elections

I-Am-a-Money-Magnet-the-secret-23316442-500-372Citing Missouri billionaire Rex Sinquefield’s $300,000 donation to a Washington, D.C. group that tried to defeat a local Missouri judge, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial asks Sinquefield for more transparency and less deceit.

In an editorial styled as a letter to Sinquefield, the editorial board asks, “Could you please instruct your vast army of political operatives to stop being deceitful about how they spend your money?” It acknowledges that on some issues it agrees philosophically with the activist donor, but “When you — or the people who work for you — secretly funnel money into Washington, D.C., political action committees to hide the source of the funds, it looks really sneaky and underhanded.”

The letter refers to money Sinquefield gave to the Republican State Leadership Committee and its spending that amount and more to defeat Cole County Circuit Judge Pat Joyce, who ultimately won reelection in November (see Gavel Grab). It says “your spokespeople wouldn’t fess up. Neither would the RSLC.” Read more

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Justice McCormack Calls MI Court ‘Collegial and High-Functioning’

bildeJustice Bridget Mary McCormack of the Michigan Supreme Court says that despite perceptions of an elected court riven by ideology, the bench is quite “collegial and high-functioning.”

Justice McCormack gave an interview to Michigan Radio. She  said the justices pay a price given a public perception that impartial decision-making is influenced by extensive undisclosed spending on judicial elections.

“I can tell you from my personal experience in the back room, it’s not how we work,” said Justice McCormack, who was elected in 2012. She also said partisanship does not drive the justices’ decision-making. Read more

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Judges Behaving Badly Are Disciplined in Michigan

A spate of high profile scandals involving sitting elected judges has resulted in cracking down by the Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission. A Detroit Free Press article examines the misconduct and invites readers to reach their own conclusions.

“I think you can make the point that this is a troubled judiciary,” said Charles Gardner Geyh, a professor of law at Indiana University. “But there is a counterpoint to be made. Michigan is doing a fairly aggressive job of rooting out misconduct.”

The article recounts a rather sensational side to the scandals:

“They lied, stole, forged bank documents, padded expense accounts, drove drunk, slept with litigants and jailed innocent people. Michigan judges have been in big trouble in recent years. The number of judges disciplined — about 35 per year — has not gone up, but the level of chicanery has soared.”

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JAS Partner Spotlights ‘Dark Money’ in MI Judicial Election

The Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a Justice at Stake partner organization, says unreported, unregulated “dark money” bankrolled the majority of costs for TV advertising in Michigan’s 2014 Supreme Court and attorney general campaigns.

iStock_000015670171Small1The Michigan Republican Party spent $4.2 million on ads about Supreme Court candidates “but reported no television advertising to the Michigan Bureau of Elections” due to a loophole in state law, MCFN said in a news release. It said the Center for Individual Freedom, a Virginia-based 501(c)(4) “social welfare” corporation, spent $468,000 for broadcast advertising supportive of the Republican nominees and the advertising was not reported to the Bureau of Elections.

“When such expenditures are not reported, the donors behind the spending are not reported either,” MCFN noted. Read more

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Critical TV Ad in Ohio Court Race Draws Bar Rebuke

A TV ad in advance of the Ohio Supreme Court election, aired by Common Pleas Judge John P. O’Donnell, accuses incumbent Justice Judith L. French of being “in the pocket of big utilities,” referring to campaign contributions and her decision in a rate case.

A panel of the Ohio State Bar Association found Judge O’Donnell violated a “clean campaign pledge” and the ad’s depictions “falsely imply that justice is for sale in Ohio.” The Bar asked him to pull the ad.

The Bar’s action was reported by the Northeast Ohio Media Group. Justice French said about her opponent, according to the Columbus Dispatch, “Judges should be held to the highest standard. It’s concerning that he has gone negative and broken his promise to the voters and to his colleagues.” Read more

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JAS on Illinois Court Retention Election: ‘Here We Go Again’

Screen shot 2014-10-29 at 11.25.59 AMWith Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier facing opposition in his retention election from a group heavily funded by plaintiffs’ lawyers, the Republican State Leadership Committee has jumped into the race and spent $950,000 in support of Karmeier, the Chicago Tribune reported. (The article is available through Google.)

“Here we go again,” Justice at Stake Executive Director Bert Brandenburg told the Tribune. Illlinois again has become a battleground state in a “long-running war being fought between plaintiffs’ lawyers and big business” over high courts, the newspaper said, mentioning a record $9.3 million spent when Justice Karmeier was elected in 2004.

Screen shot 2014-10-29 at 11.29.10 AMThe contest has featured fierce advertising. A TV ad aired by Campaign for 2016, the opposition group, said that Justice Karmeier received millions from pro-business interests in 2004 then voted to strike down huge verdicts against State Farm and Philip Morris. “Our justice is not for sale,” the narrator said at its end. The RSLC-sponsored ad says the justice has been tough on violent criminals and stood up to “Chicago trial lawyers who have tried to buy the courts.” Read more

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Report Digs Into ‘Secret Donations’ in Michigan High Court Race

In the countdown to Election Day, news media covering state judicial elections are finding plenty of contentious issues to examine, including the way judicial campaigns are funded and conducted:

  • WXYZ TV in Detroit aired an investigative piece entitled, “Politics, secret donations fuel Michigan Supreme Court races.” A bipartisan expert panel is urging reform that so high court candidates no longer go through the political parties to be elected, the newscast said, and some lawyers are trying to remove big spending out of the process. 
  • “The abortion issue has driven a partisan wedge in the otherwise non-partisan Supreme Court justice race in Northern Kentucky,” Cincinnati.com reported.
  • The Madison-St. Clair (Illinois) Record reported about an Illinois Supreme Court race, “Will Karmeier attack ads get through the ‘clutter?’ Observer says effect will be ‘minimal.'” Meanwhile the Southern Illinoisan reported, “Plaintiffs’ lawyers attack Justice Karmeier.”
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'Arms Race' for Judicial Election Spending in Michigan: JAS

gavel_cash_20121102165220_320_240Michigan is shaping up as a major battleground for three contested seats on its state Supreme Court. Spending on TV advertising airtime has climbed to $1.2 million, as the state GOP began airing an ad promoting its nominees, Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice reported.

The sums spent on TV advertising so far are the highest for any state supreme court election, the groups said in a joint statement on Friday. Judicial candidates have spent nearly $990,000, and the state GOP TV ad campaign has cost an estimated $244,720.

“It’s troubling that spending in Michigan’s Supreme Court race is again on track to reach astronomical proportions,” said JAS Executive Director Bert Brandenburg. “Michigan has become a national symbol of an arms race that is putting pressure on judges to answer to political pressure instead of the law and the constitution.” Read more

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Editorial: Get Money Out of State High Court Races

michigan supreme corut

“Justices should be appointed by the governor from a list of candidates proposed by a blue-ribbon, non-partisan committee and then face confirmation by public vote,” opines an editorial on the Holland (Michigan) Sentinel.

The editorial revisits the problems in the current method of electing Michigan Supreme Court justices: campaign fundraising, partisanship, and “dark money,” coming from undisclosed contributors.

Michigan had the most costly state Supreme Court race of 2012, with campaign donations totaling $3.4 million and “dark money” spending that totaled $13.85 million. So far this year, the spending has been much less; candidates had spent $690,000 by the end of September to book TV ad time, the editorial says in relying on Justice at Stake data.

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Local Commissioner: Michigan Facing Crisis in the Courts

County courts in Michigan are short millions of dollars after the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that courts could not make defendants bear part of the costs of trials, writes Allegan County Commissioner Jon Campbell in a Grand Haven Tribune op-ed. Courts can only impose fees that are authorized by the legislature.

These courts have been limited in their function since the ruling was passed down in June and are waiting for the Legislature to identify new funding sources (unlikely in an election year) or restore authority to implement “user fees.” Campbell, who urges quick action by legislators in order to avert a crisis, is incoming president of the Michigan Association of Counties.

If the courts aren’t sufficiently funded, citizens could see long delays and large backlogs of cases, limiting their access to justice.

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