Lansing— Michigan’s “weak” finance disclosure rules led to the nation’s highest undocumented spending on state Supreme Court races in 2012, according to a new national report.
The $18.85 million spent in the race for three seats on Michigan’s high court bench and the $13.85 million of that whose sources weren’t made public were both highs for the country, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, which is part of the New York University School of Law, and Justice at Stake, a nonpartisan judicial fairness campaign organization.
It also was the second straight election cycle in which Michigan topped all other states in Supreme Court spending, according to the report released last week.
“We can no longer say we’re no worse than the rest,” said Rich Robinson, director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. “We are worse than the rest, and that’s especially true for judicial campaigns.”
James Holcomb, associate general counsel for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, disagreed. He said the public knows who’s running campaign ads or paying for campaign materials because they’re required to carry disclaimers listing the source.
“Every advertisement, whether a direct advocacy political expenditure or an issue advocacy expenditure, provides the public with a disclaimer,” Holcomb said in an email. “As for us at the Michigan Chamber, every advertisement we sponsor contains a public notice that the ad is ‘Paid for by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.’”
But Robinson said some ads carry vague disclaimers, such as Judicial Crisis Network or Americans for Job Security, that don’t tell voters who they represent.
The Brennan Center-Justice at Stake report said an unprecedented $24.1 million was spent by special interest groups and political parties on TV ads and election materials in state court races in 2011-2012. Total spending, including that by official candidate groups, was $56.4 million.
Authors of the report claim judicial elections have become an “arms race” in which growing interest-group and undisclosed spending threaten the impartiality of America’s courts.
High 2012 spending in Michigan was spurred by an intense partisan election battle with the court’s 4-3 conservative majority on the line. Conservative incumbents Steven Markman and Brian Zahra and Democratic nominee Bridget McCormack were elected.
The 2012 election also featured $2.6 million in spending on a seven-person race for five Sixth Circuit Court judgeships in Oakland County. Of that, $2 million was undisclosed and financed ads against five incumbents who were re-elected.
Robinson, whose organization tracks down such unreported spending, speculated it could have come from a single individual and said it particularly illustrates the hazards of secret election spending.
“If you’re a judge and you get an angry rich guy in your court, are you able to do what’s right?” he said.
“That’s a pretty big threat to impartial justice.”
In September, the State Bar of Michigan filed a formal request for a declaratory ruling from Secretary of State Ruth Johnson that “all payments for communications referring to judicial candidates” have to be publicly reported.
The State Bar, representing 43,600 lawyers, wants Johnson to overturn a 2004 determination by her predecessor, Terri Lynn Land.
Responding to a Michigan Chamber of Commerce inquiry, Land said state campaign finance rules don’t require disclosure of donors and donations to “issue” campaigns. Issued-oriented commercials are commonplace in Michigan.
The Chamber’s Holcomb charged the State Bar “is trying to silence the voices of organizations that they disagree with politically by attacking their rights of free speech and freedom of association.”
Holcomb said State Bar contentions are without merit under state law and a pair of 1998 federal court rulings regarding Michigan campaign finance disclosure.
Secretary of State spokesman Fred Woodhams said Johnson’s answer “is being worked on. The response isn’t due until mid-November.”