Gavel Grab

Amid U.S. Court Rulings, MI Top Judge Mum on Marriage Issue

justiceyoungWhile federal judges have recently issued rulings related to a Michigan ban on marriage for same-sex couples, Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Young Jr. is staying mum on the topic in the event a case comes before his court.

“I’m a spectator just like everyone else,” he told the Grand Rapids Press editorial board, according to an article.

Last week, U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman struck down a voter-approved ban on marriages in Michigan for same-sex couples, saying it was unconstitutional. This week, a panel of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals stayed Judge Friedman’s order for now, according to the Los Angeles Times. Several hundred marriage licenses for same-sex couples were issued in the interim. Read more

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Two Incumbent Justices Seek Election in Michigan

9532468-largeTwo sitting justices on the Michigan Supreme Court, Brian Zahra and David Viviano, have announced they will stand for election in November.

Both justices initially were appointed by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. Justice Zahra was appointed in 2011 and was elected in 2012 to complete an unexpired term, and he will seek an eight-year term in November. Justice Viviano was appointed in 2013, upon the stepping down of Justice Diane Hathaway, who was convicted of bank fraud; he will seek to serve for the final two years of her unexpired term, according to the Macomb Daily.

A third seat will be up for grabs in November. Justice Michael Cavanagh will not be permitted to seek re-election because he is more than 70 years old. He is one of two members of the seven-member court who were nominated by Democrats, the Detroit News reported.

Michigan had the most expensive supreme court contest in the nation in the 2011-2012 election cycle, according to an analysis by Justice at Stake and two partner organizations. 

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Michigan Seeks Interpreters to Improve Access to Justice

Michigan Supreme Court justice Bridget Mary McCormack wrote a commentary for the Detroit News discussing the need for interpreters to ensure consistent and meaningful access to the courts for all Michiganders.  The piece highlights a new rule that requires all courts to provide interpreters.  This rule was covered in Gavel Grab briefs, here.

Justice McCormack details the requirements affecting individuals who wish to become court interpreters.
Interpreters must speak English and pass an oral proficiency exam for another language.  Oral proficiency exams include Arabic, Cantonese, French, Haitian Creole, Hmong, Laotian, Polish, Portuguese and Russian among others.  She goes on to emphasize the importance of the interpreter role, as one that can assist with court proceedings by aiding those who need to understand and be understood.

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Law Dean Laments New Anti-Disclosure Law in Michigan

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s recent signing into law of a measure that exempts “issue ads” from disclosure has the effect of making it easier for special interests to influence government and making it harder “for the rest of us,” an election law expert says.

Jocelyn Benson (photo), interim dean for the Wayne State Law School, voiced her opinion in a Detroit News op-ed.  The law has special implications for continuing anonymity of big spenders on judicial elections.

Benson noted, “In 2012, the Michigan Campaign Finance Network estimated that donors poured over 14 million dollars into ads attempting to influence our vote in the Michigan Supreme Court race.” Read more

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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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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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Former Judge: ‘It’s the Huge Money’ Driving Elections Now

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

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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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‘New Politics’: Michigan Election Led for Anonymous Spending

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

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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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