Traverse City Record-Eagle

February 19, 2008

High court the target of effort

Group seeking legislative support for changes

By VICTOR SKINNER

TRAVERSE CITY -- Anne Magoun will lead a busload of local residents to Lansing to urge legislators to push reforms in campaign finance for state Supreme Court justices.

The high court's current election process spawns unnecessary conflicts of interest between elected justices and litigants in cases over which they preside, Magoun said.

The Traverse City woman helped form the Michigan Independent Supreme Court Campaign last fall. About two dozen members and group supporters were expected to board a bus today to present senators with nearly 1,200 signatures in support of change.

"We ask for full and timely disclosure of all campaign expenditures for Michigan Supreme Court elections, specifically issue advertisements. I will be speaking with Sen. Michelle McManus, but we will all be there," Magoun said. "The other main point we are asking for is voluntary public financing for Supreme Court campaigns."

McManus, a Lake Leelanau Republican, is chairwoman of the Senate Campaign and Election Oversight Committee. Magoun said the group also expects to garner support from Sen. Jason Allen, R-Traverse City, and through a press conference at the capital.

McManus did not return messages for comment.

Rich Robinson, director of the nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network, said funds used to create television issue advertisements that don't directly reference voting or elections, but merely disparage or promote a candidate, are not required to be publicly reported.

"The normal prohibitions against unions and corporations also don't apply, and it becomes a particularly toxic stew at that point," he said. "As these campaigns have become more aggressive (candidates), need to raise more money. The problem with all of that is a lot of the contributors end up being litigants or counsel involved in cases the court decides."

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce spent millions of dollars on issue ads since 2000 and senior vice president Robert LaBrant said the "chamber will disclose when other entities disclose."

"In the area of disclosure, if all players in the campaign finance arena are subject to the same disclosure, I would support that," LaBrant said. "I am not going to commit to something before I have actually read some language."

A forum focused on reforms was held in Traverse City last fall, and the Michigan Independent Supreme Court Campaign emerged from public support on the issue, Magoun said.

"It was very easy to get people involved once they knew what our concerns were," she said.

State Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Weaver also is an advocate for change.

"I am certainly supportive of your efforts for much needed reforms for campaign finance in the selection process," Weaver wrote in a letter to the group.

Weaver recently drafted two constitutional amendments to change the selection process and set term limits for justices.

About $10 million has been spent on nonpublic issue ads since 2000, and the American Judicature Society identifies Michigan's justices as "the only judges in the country who do not have rules that establish grounds for disqualification," according to the Campaign Finance Network.