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).
Former Justice Alton Davis (photo) of the Michigan Supreme Court, defeated in the 2010 election that saw Michigan lead the nation for judicial election spending, says big money has transformed judicial races.
“The old labels don’t mean anything. Republican doesn’t mean anything. Democrat doesn’t mean anything. It’s the huge money and everybody else. That’s the deal now, I think, going forward. Up and down the road,” he told reporters for a joint NPR and Center for Responsive Politics report.
The second part of the serialized report looks more closely at non-profit organizations that are commonly called social welfare groups, and are also known by their federal tax code designation as 501(c)(4) entities. Funds from one such entity, the Wellspring Committee, were channeled to another group that sponsored an ad critical of Justice Davis in the 2010 race (see Gavel Grab).
The Wellspring Committee was founded in 2008 and has raised $24 million, and given out almost $16.9 million to other social welfare organizations, according to the report. These groups are allowed to keep their donors secret. The report’s second installment is entitled, “Secret Persuasion: How Big Campaign Donors Stay Anonymous.” Read more
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
Michigan’s Supreme Court contest in 2012 led the nation for undocumented spending, according to a Detroit News article that spotlighted data from the “New Politics of Judicial Elections, 2011-12” report.
A total of $18.85 million was spent when three seats on the high court were up for election, and $13.85 million of that came from undisclosed donors, the newspaper reported. For the second consecutive election cycle, Michigan led all other states for overall high court election spending, said the report, released by Justice at Stake, the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network lamented, “We can no longer say we’re no worse than the rest. We are worse than the rest, and that’s especially true for judicial campaigns.” MCFN is a Justice at Stake partner organization. Read more
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
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
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.”
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.
Rich Robinson, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, suggests that a Michigan Court of Appeals judge — reported to have given $80,000 to GOP candidates and causes in the 2012 federal elections — effectively “flushed any vestiges of nonpartisanship.”
Bridge Magazine reported about the political donations of Judge Henry Saad (photo above left), based on data made public by The Sunlight Foundation. The magazine interviewed Robinson (photo below right), whose group is a Justice at Stake partner organization. Robinson aired these concerns about Judge Saad’s giving:
“I think Judge Saad has destroyed any pretense that he is non-partisan,” Robinson said. “He’s clearly a deeply committed partisan. I think you’d be able to predict his vote on any legal case with a partisan angle.”
Robinson also said he would favor recommendations of a bipartisan judicial selection task force that suggested last year a list of reforms (see Gavel Grab) to remove partisanship from the current process for picking state judges. Bridge Magazine presented a lengthy, transcribed interview of Robinson under the headline, “Why Michigan citizens should care about money in judicial politics.” Read more
The Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN) came out with a report with research showing that it is becoming more difficult for voters to know who’s contributing money to influence public policy and for what purpose.
This report, titled A Citizen’s Guide to Michigan Campaign Finance tackles the issue of donors whose identities and motives remain unknown, including the number of anonymous donations involved in the 2012 Michigan Supreme Court elections.
- Last year, anonymous donors gave $18 million dollars for television advertising in Michigan state elections. This is the equivalent of one in every three dollars spent on campaigns for state office for the 2012 election cycle.
- The candidate committees for the Oakland County Sixth Circuit Court campaign reported independent expenditures totaling $733,000. Unreported candidate-focused TV issue ads dwarfed reported activity with $2 million in spending.
- Two seats on the Michigan Supreme Court were contested in 2012. Three-fourths of the $19 million spent was provided by anonymous donors.
In a Detroit Free Press column, this research is highlighted along with a comparison of the current state of campaign finance laws in Michigan. Overall, as described in a press release from the MCFN, the report explores trends of the rise in spending with diminishing accountability.