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Editorial: Ads in judicial elections are a problem - again

Date: 10/21/2012
Source: The Detroit News

Once again, Michigan's lax campaign finance disclosure laws are allowing someone or some group to mount attack ads against judges without having to identify themselves. And in a separate issue, state Democrats are floating untrue attack ads against conservative incumbents seeking re-election to the Supreme Court.

The most blatant and persistent ads are anonymous salvos against Oakland Circuit Judge Phyllis McMillen, who is accused of mishandling a criminal case. First, no jurist should be judged by voters on the basis of a single case. Judges make hundreds of decisions over the course of a judicial term and should be held accountable for the totality of their work, unless they're involved in an egregious personal scandal or dereliction of their judicial duties.

Second, the ads attacking McMillen, and backing two challengers to all five of the incumbents seeking re-election to the Oakland Circuit bench, are coming from groups that do not have to identify who is backing them or providing the funds for the ads they are sponsoring.

There is much buzzing in the judicial community that the real backer of the ads is a wealthy litigant who is unhappy with the outcome of one of McMillen's rulings, but thanks to our poorly drafted rules, that can only be speculation.

Groups that place ads discussing candidates do not have to identify their backers or sources of revenue unless, under state law and regulations promulgated by a prior secretary of state, they are engaged in "express advocacy" such as using the words "vote against" or "vote for" someone.

That's why in a number of ads, announcers use the phrase "call" judge or senator or representative so-and-so and tell them to stop hurting puppies and little children.

This is a dodge and it shouldn't be allowed.

Rich Robinson, head of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a political donation watchdog group, contends that the standard should be that any ad that discusses a candidate's "suitability for office" should be subject to disclosure of the sources of financing for the ad. He's right. People should know the motives behind ads attacking a candidate and state lawmakers and the secretary of state's office should make it easier for them to do so.

At least the motives are clear in Democratic Party ads floating around the Internet attacking conservative incumbent Supreme Court Justices Stephen Markman and Brian Zahra for unduly favoring insurance companies over individual claimants. This is a theme that is trotted out every election cycle.

The Truth Squad of the nonpartisan Center for Michigan calls foul on one of the ads, which focuses on four years of cases. Markman, in fact, has produced an analysis showing the high court favoring individual claimants 45 percent of the time and underwriters 55 percent of the time over the last dozen years when substantive court orders as well as written opinions are included.

Voters should try to find out as much as they can about judicial candidates before making their decisions, but political ads this year are making it harder than it should be.

(c) 2012, The Detroit News