Traverse City Record-Eagle

Op-Ed Columns

May 13, 2012

George Weeks: Light lacking in supreme court races

Michigan has no greater current blot on state government than anonymous campaign contributions that give big money interests too much influence with too little transparency in all three branches, especially of late on the Supreme Court.

It's not a problem unique to the states. Nor to Michigan. But a bipartisan study gives the state particularly bad marks on high court races.

At the national level, Arizona Sen. John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee and co-author of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law that was eviscerated by the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United, told an audience, according to the National Journal, that because of the ruling:

"I promise you, there will be huge scandals. There is too much money washing around [and] we don't know who contributed, and there's corruption associated with that kind of money." He vowed: "We will fight again." Writing in TIME magazine, Ex-Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., also a former presidential aspirant, said: "In our current circumstances, our government is in danger of becoming a tool of entrenched and moneyed interests."

An assessment of current circumstances in Michigan was released recently by the Michigan Judicial Selection Task Force co-chaired by state Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Kelly, a Democrat and 2009-11 chief justice, and James L. Ryan, a Republican who served about 10 years on state Supreme Court and now is senior circuit judge of the 6th U.S. Court of Appeals. The task force, which had 24 other well-credentialed members, said:

"The 2010 campaign season for the Michigan Supreme Court was the most expensive and most secretive in the nation. Outside expenditures, including by political parties ($5,503,369) and interest groups ($1,274,841) dwarfed the candidates' own spending ($2,342,827).

The report said "it was one of several elections over the last decade when more than half of all spending in the Michigan Supreme Court race was unreported. Voters deserve to know which special interest groups are spending to influence the outcome of these elections and how much they are spending." Under a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, justices must recuse themselves from cases involving a significant contributor. But, as noted by ex-U.S. Supreme Court Sandra Day O'Connor, honorary chair of the Michigan task force, how can a party to litigation move for recusal when the source of contributions "remains unknown to the public"?

Beyond more transparency, another welcome task force recommendation for corrective action is implementation of an open primary system. I have often commented on the current folly of political parties nominating high court candidates who then run on the nonpartisan ballot.

Former Chief Justice Betty Weaver of Glen Arbor, long an articulate vocal advocate for reform of the Supreme Court selection process and campaign funding, gave a cautious welcome to the report. She said the idea of "getting the parties out of the nominating process is excellent," and likes "some of the checks and balances" on the court's power.

But Weaver, whose own reform proposal calls for term limits on justices, does not embrace the task force recommendation for removal, by constitutional amendment, of the provision that prohibits the election or appointment of a judicial office of those persons who have reached the age of 70 years.

Big money from unknown sources also could be a campaign issue on ballot proposals. Inside Michigan Politics newsletter, noting last week that there could be a record number of proposals on the statewide ballot in the Nov. 6 general election, said:

—¦as state elections have become increasingly 'nationalized,' vast amounts of 'independent' and out-of-state money have entered the picture. Big bucks have paid petition circulators to make sure favored issues are put before the voters." It's not so much that big bucks are "washing around" in assorted political venues, as McCain described it, it's that too often "we don't know who contributed" the bucks.

To identify contributors has long been a mission of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network, which provided staff support for the task force effort.

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