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Editorial: Whose money will win the Michigan Supreme Court?

Date: 10/31/2012
Source: Detroit Free Press

However close the final tally, Michiganders are likely to know within hours after the polls close who won the presidency. But they may never find out who won the contest for control of the Michigan Supreme Court.

The Michigan Campaign Finance Network, which monitors political spending in our state to the extent anyone can, reports that the race for three seats on Michigan's highest court is shaping up as the most expensive and least transparent judicial campaign in the nation.

The state's two major political parties have earmarked at least $10 million for the race, or about three times what the incumbent justices and their challengers have raised.

Someone, it seems, has a bigger stake in the outcome than the candidates themselves. But who?

"If you think rationally, the interests with the greatest incentive to drive the outcome of an election (for the Supreme Court) are those with a high stakes case in the appeals pipeline," observes MCFN Executive Director Rich Robinson.

But under anemic disclosure laws that require the parties and other third-party organizations to disclose neither what they spend on so-called independent advertising nor where the money ultimately comes from, voters have no way of knowing who's secretly maneuvering to rig the judicial process.

Robinson documented $10 million in undisclosed spending by perusing the public files of Michigan TV broadcasters and cable systems. But he notes that undocumented spending on radio and direct mail advertising likely account for millions more in untraceable donations.

The phenomenon of anonymous donors dominating Michigan's state Supreme Court races isn't new. Undisclosed spending by third parties has eclipsed candidate expenditures in every high court election cycle since 2000.

But this year's black box campaign spending is distinguished both by its unprecedented scope and its context.

Outside the state Supreme Court race, special interests have raised an astonishing $141 million to promote or oppose six proposals on the November ballot; more than 80% of that total is dedicated to just three of the six. Whichever party controls the state Supreme Court starting Jan. 1 will likely determine how any proposal adopted by voters is implemented in the real world.

The prevalence of undisclosed spending in state Supreme Court races mocks the very idea of judicial impartiality and casts a shadow on the integrity of everyone who participates in the process.

Until voters are permitted to know who is bankrolling candidates for the state's highest court and why, we may as well dispense with this electoral charade and declare ordinary citizens the losers.

(c) 2012 Detroit Free Press