Friday, February 15, 2008

Public financing of MSC elections: the heat's on, the Legislature should act

For more than a year, SB 128, which would provide for public financing of Michigan Supreme Court elections, has been tucked away in a dark corner of Michigan Senate's Committee on Campaign and Election Oversight.

Sen. Michelle McManus, R-Lake Leelanau, chairs the committee and would be the person to schedule hearings on the bill.

Now, word comes from The Detroit News that a delegation of Traverse City residents, including former Michigan first lady Helen Milliken, will be in Lansing on Tuesday see if they can bring SB 128 out into the daylight.

Charlie Cain, the ace chief of the News' Lansing Bureau, provides a cogent description of SB 128 in his story today:

"Under the proposed legislation, a candidate for the top court would have to raise $50,000 in contributions of no more than $500 each to show that the person is a serious candidate for the bench. The candidate would then qualify for public financing equal to the average amount spent by candidates in the two previous election cycles. In 2006, the average spent by a Supreme Court candidate was $944,000 and in 2004 it was $1.78 million. The public money would come from taxpayer check-off contributions to the State Campaign Fund, which was established to provide public financing for candidates for governor who forgo raising their own campaign money."
Michigan Lawyer has previously blogged about judicial campaign finance reform:

The Michigan Lawyer: Judicial election reform buzz getting louder

The Michigan Lawyer: Justices, money, elections and recusal

And a couple of days ago, Detroit Free Press columnist Brian Dickerson again warmed to the topic.

According to Dickerson, here's what the fuss is all about:
"Since 2000, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce has spent $6 million to promote the images of five Republican state Supreme Court justices (and smear the incumbents' Democratic challengers) in a series of TV ad campaigns. It's likely that those who bankrolled the initiative include insurers, retailers and other companies who've benefited directly from high court rulings curtailing the liability of corporate defendants.
"But we can't be sure who sponsored the ads because so-called issue campaigns, such as the chamber's, are exempt from public-disclosure rules that govern election expenditures like the Acme recall effort. All that's certain is that a bunch of unknown corporations spent truckloads of cash to buy a state Supreme Court they hoped would be less sympathetic to consumers -- and got what they paid for."
There are some folks out there who would debate Dickerson on his viewpoint. Others embrace it as gospel. But if the truth be told, over the years, there have been more than enough shenanigans to go around from all over the political spectrum.

But all of that is beside the point.

And the point is this: large quantities of soft, shadowy, hard-to-trace money should have no place in any elective process, let alone the Michigan Supreme Court elections.

People are talking. Are you listening, Sen. McManus?

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