After a year-long study, the Michigan Judicial Selection Task Force yesterday released its report and recommendations for improving the state's process for selecting Supreme Court justices.
Led by two veteran Michigan jurists, Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Kelly and Senior Judge James L. Ryan of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, the task force called for more transparency, less partisanship and a better informed electorate as elements of an improved Supreme Court selection process.
"The current process of selecting justices undermines public trust and confidence in the impartiality and independence of the Michigan Supreme Court," said Kelly. "Polling has consistently shown that a majority of Michigan voters believes that judicial campaign contributions have influence on the decisions judges make. As the saying goes, perceptions become reality: A judiciary that is not perceived as impartial is a compromised judiciary. That's not fair to anyone - not to citizens, and not to the judges. Michigan deserves better."
The report is available in pdf at http://www.mcfn.org/uploads/documents/MIJudicialSelectionTaskForce.pdf. Printed copies are available on request through the League of Women Voters of Michigan, whose contact information is included on the same web-page. Among the report's recommendations:
• Full public disclosure of all sources of electioneering spending
Michigan had the most expensive Supreme Court campaign in the nation in 2010, at $11.4 million. For the period from 2000 through 2010, half of the $42.3 million spent to elect 12 justices was off the books because candidate-focused issue advertisements do not have to be reported. The task force was unanimous in calling for an amendment to the Michigan Campaign Finance Act to require the disclosure of the sources of all campaign spending.
• Implementation of an open primary system
Michigan citizens vote for justices on the nonpartisan section of the ballot. An open primary election to qualify general election candidates - rather than the nomination by political parties that exists today - would reduce partisanship in an area where it never belonged.
• Increased information about Supreme Court candidates
A voter education guide produced by the Secretary of State each election cycle would help citizens overcome campaign disinformation and a lack of facts about justice candidates.
A citizens' campaign oversight committee would help citizens evaluate the veracity of campaign claims and understand the legal substance behind claims that are twisted in specious campaign communications.
• A nominating commission to recommend candidates for vacancy appointments
About half of Supreme Court justices who have served since the adoption of the Michigan Constitution of 1963 first gained their office through unfettered gubernatorial appointment. An advisory nominating commission would provide a bipartisan public vetting by lawyers and non-lawyers of candidates who seek appointment to complete vacated Supreme Court terms.
• Elimination of the discriminatory age 70 limitation on judicial candidates
The constitutional requirement that prohibits the election or appointment to a judicial office of a person who has reached the age of 70 years is arbitrary and serves no public interest. It should be removed by amendment of the constitution.
"Many members of the task force favored moving to a merit-based appointment system for justices. However, that was not a consensus position so it did not rise to the level of a recommendation in the report," said Ryan. "There was a consensus that partisanship doesn't belong in Michigan's highest court - and neither do the influence of special interest groups and undisclosed spending. The practical, common-sense reforms we have recommended will help elevate public trust and confidence in the impartiality of the Michigan judiciary."
In addition to Kelly and Ryan, the Michigan Judicial Selection Task Force comprises conservatives, liberals and independents; lawyers and non-lawyers; business people and experienced campaigners. A full list of task force members is available at http://www.mcfn.org/uploads/documents/MIJudicialSelectionTaskForce.pdf.
MCFN executive director Rich Robinson served as a non-voting project assistant to the Michigan Judicial Selection Task Force.