Monday, October 15, 2007

Justices, money, elections and recusal

A pair of recent reports from the Michigan Campaign Finance Network touch on the touchy subjects of how election campaigns for the Michigan Supreme Court are financed, and standards for recusal when litigants and justices have "substantial financial ties," whether personal or political.

In "A Case for Political Reform in Michigan," the MCFN argues that the state "should provide voluntary full public funding for Michigan Supreme Court campaigns so voters have the opportunity to support candidates who demonstrably have no financial connection to interest groups that subsequently become litigants before the Court."

The MCFN's 2006 Citizen's Guide to Michigan Campaign Finance (caution: this is a big file; if you have a wimpy computer and/or internet connection, you'll need to be patient) details MSC candidate campaign spending in the last election. Check out Appendix M, which names, to borrow Justice Robert Young's phrase, some of "the usual suspects" who contributed to Justices Maura Corrigan and Michael Cavanagh's 2006 campaigns.

The Guide also bemoans Michigan's "weak campaign finance law," which allows special interest groups to run so-called "issue ads."

Issue advertising advocates particular positions or recommends courses of action that stop short of actually telling viewers to vote for or against a particular candidate. Such advertising does not fall within campaign expense reporting requirements.

We're not talking about trivial sums. From 2000, the first year for which the Guide provides issue advertising figures, through 2006, total spending on all MSC races was almost $23.2 million. Of that figure, issue advertising accounted for $10.5 million.

The problem with issue advertising, according to the MCFN's "Case for Political Reform," is that "with more than one-third of the spending coming from anonymous sources, there is no way to evaluate the nature or the scale of the financial connection between the justices and the judged."

The MCFN recommends that all "issue advertising" that mentions a candidate by name within 60 days of an election should be considered campaign expenditures subject to reporting requirements.

And, this report continues, "[a]s long as huge sums of private interests' money are involved in the judicial selection process, the Court should be attentive to the fact that political money compromises the appearance, if not the reality, of its judicial impartiality."

The MCFN urges the MSC to "develop standards for recusal for cases involving individuals and interest groups who have substantial financial ties, whether personal or political, to any justices."

Easier said than done.

We'll have more about this in a future post.

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