LANSING - Michigan's 2014 Supreme Court campaign topped $10 million, according to reports filed with the Michigan Bureau of Elections and advertising records compiled by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network from the public files of state broadcasters and cable systems.
In a pattern that has become typical for Michigan Supreme Court elections, the candidates' campaign committees accounted for less than half of all spending. The Republican slate of nominees raised $2,277,737, while the Democratic nominees raised $2,731,902. Now Justice-elect Richard Bernstein had the top individual fundraising total, $2,262,929. Bernstein self-funded more than $1,850,000.
Reported independent expenditures in support of the Republican nominees totaled $716,651, including a $400,000 radio ad buy by the Michigan Realtors Association.
Reported independent expenditures in support of the Democratic nominees totaled just $8,499. That sum paid for postage for a campaign mailer, but the mailer was not reported.
The campaign featured almost $4.7 million in unreported, unregulated television advertising. That, too, is part of a pattern surrounding Michigan Supreme Court campaigns. What was unusual was the asymmetry of the dark money advertising. In past years both political parties have been major buyers of undisclosed advertising. This year the Michigan Republican Party and the Center for Individual Freedom were the only participants and all their ads were in support of Justices David Viviano and Brian Zahra and Judge James Redford.
"People were mesmerized because there were no slashing negative ads in this year's campaign," said Rich Robinson of the nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network, "But we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that there was $4.7 million spent by anonymous donors to promote two of our justices."
"If those anonymous donors have a case before the court, their opponent in litigation should be entitled to request that the beneficiaries of that spending recuse themselves. But the facts of those millions of dollars of contributions are not to be found in the public record. That undermines the very presumption of impartial justice," Robinson said.
Data published by the Brennan Center for Justice suggest that Michigan had the most expensive and least transparent judicial election in the country in 2014. This is the third consecutive election cycle where that has been the case.
Data presented in the attached table are limited to what can be verified from public records. Both political parties had direct mail featuring their candidates that was not reported. At least two interest groups sponsored radio advertisements that are beyond MCFN's capacity to document. There is a significant amount of additional undisclosed spending that has not been quantified.
"Michigan's Supreme Court campaigns are an outlier from national norms," MCFN's Robinson said. "And I don't mean that in a complimentary way."
This report has been updated to include independent expenditures that were first reported in February 2015.