LANSING – Grassroots activists brought a simple message to Lansing on Tuesday: Michigan’s high-priced and largely secretive Supreme Court election campaigns undermine public trust and confidence in the state’s highest court. Taxpayer-financed election campaigns would give Supreme Court candidates a viable alternative to raising financial support from interest groups and attorneys who later appear as litigants or counsel before the Court, and help to restore that trust and confidence.
The Michigan Independent Supreme Court Campaign (MISCC) grew out of a public forum sponsored by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN) and the League of Women Voters of the Grand Traverse Area last October in Traverse City. After the forum, concerned individuals collected more than 1,000 signatures from Grand Traverse area residents supporting public financing for Michigan Supreme Court election campaigns and full disclosure of financial sponsors of candidate-focused “issue” advertising.
“It was very easy to collect these petition signatures,” said Anne Magoun, MISCC spokesperson and past-president of the League of Women Voters of Michigan. “When you explain the problem and the alternative we’re supporting, it has natural appeal to citizens’ values. People understand the potential for conflicts of interest when the justices’ campaign supporters are involved in the Court’s cases. The judiciary is different from the other branches of government. Public confidence in its impartiality means everything, and the mere appearance of a conflict has a corrosive effect.”
Since 2000, spending for the state’s Supreme Court campaigns has exceeded $23 million. The candidates’ campaign committees raised $10.5 million, while political action committees and the political parties, which can accept unlimited contributions, spent another $2.3 million for independent expenditures. Ten million dollars more was spent for candidate-focused “issue” advertising that praised or disparaged candidates by name. Because those advertisements made no explicit reference to voting or an election, there is no requirement to report financing of those ads. Also, there are no prohibitions against corporations or unions paying for those ads, as there are for direct contributions to candidates, PACs and the political parties.
“The financial record we can see is troubling enough,” said Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. “Through the decade of the 1990s, 86 percent of the Supreme Court’s cases featured at least one contributor to at least one justice hearing the case. When you consider that more than 40 percent of all spending since 2000 is off the books, it’s obvious that this is an area in desperate need of reform.”
The MISCC activists traveled by bus from Traverse City to Lansing to urge their state senators, Sen. Michelle McManus and Sen. Jason Allen, to support public financing for Supreme Court campaigns and full financial disclosure of all electioneering advertisements. They also encouraged Sen. McManus, who chairs the Senate Campaign and Election Oversight Committee, to hold public hearings on the reforms. They concluded their day in Lansing at a news conference with MCFN, the League of Women Voters of Michigan (LWV-MI) and Sen. Deborah Cherry, who has introduced Senate Bill 128, a bill to provide public funding for Supreme Court campaigns.
“This is an issue that transcends partisanship and matters deeply to people, so we will be taking our public education campaign to communities around the state,” said Patricia Donath of LWV-MI. “Sometimes the people have to lead their elected representatives, and we’re prepared to do that.”
MISCC encourages concerned citizens across Michigan to sign its online petition at www.miscc.org.