LANSING - Michigan's Supreme Court election campaign appears to be headed for the notorious distinction of being the nation's most expensive and least transparent judicial election campaign in 2012.
The candidates' pre-general election campaign finance reports filed Friday show that the major-party nominees have raised $2,735,178. The political parties and political action committees reported independent expenditures related to the campaign in the amount of $679,094.
By Election Day the political parties will have spent $10,000,000 for Supreme Court "issue" ads, but neither party reported any of that spending, nor the contributions that paid for it. That means that 75 percent of all spending is outside the State's campaign finance disclosure system.
Data on the parties' Supreme Court TV campaigns were collected by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network from the public files of state broadcasters and cable systems.
"As shameful as it is to have the Michigan Supreme Court campaign be mostly off-the-books, it should be noted that the actual volume of undisclosed spending is higher than the $10 million I can document," said Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. "The U.S. Postal Service doesn't have a public file where we could learn about all the direct mail that's been sent but not reported. And while the Michigan Association of Realtors has done the ethical thing and reported its radio advertising, I believe there are other interest groups that haven't. I simply haven't got the resources to track it all down."
The pattern of unreported television advertising that seeks to define the candidates' suitability for holding office while avoiding an explicit exhortation about how to vote has been a feature of Michigan Supreme Court campaigns since 2000. Including this year, candidate committees have spent $18.4 million, and unreported spending for television ads by the parties and nonprofit corporations has totaled $30 million.
"While disclosure is critical in any election campaign, it is doubly so for Supreme Court campaigns," said Robinson. "If you think rationally, the interests with the greatest incentive to try to drive the outcome of an election are those with a high-stakes case in the appeals pipeline. This anonymous spending disrupts the whole presumption of judicial impartiality. It's a blight that the people of this state should not have to endure."
In a report released earlier this year, the Judicial Selection Task Force convened by Justice Marilyn Kelly and former Justice James L. Ryan made campaign disclosure a major point of emphasis in its recommendations for how to improve Supreme Court selection in Michigan.
A report released last week by the Brennan Center for Justice showed that Michigan had more Supreme Court television advertising than any other state so far this election cycle.