LANSING -- More than half the money spent on the 2004 Michigan Supreme Court campaign cannot be accounted for, three months after the election.
Data collected by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network from Michigan television broadcasters and cable system operators show two independent groups sponsored $1.77 million worth of Supreme Court ads that are not disclosed in any campaign finance reports. In comparison, the five candidates who ran for the two contested seats on the state’s highest court reported raising a total of just $1.54 million.
The Michigan Chamber of Commerce sponsored the great majority of unreported ads, worth $1.38 million. The Chamber's ads touted incumbent Justice Stephen Markman's work "protecting victims and fighting for our values," but since they did not directly call for a vote for Markman, they are considered "issue" advocacy and do not have to be reported under Michigan campaign finance law.
A political action committee calling itself Citizens for Judicial Reform spent nearly $400,000 on attack ads charging that with Markman on the Court, "no woman is safe." These ads overtly told viewers to vote against Markman, and should have been reported under Michigan law. However, to date the PAC has not acknowledged its spending or disclosed its financial backers. Two television stations questioned the veracity of the PAC's claims and refused to run its ads.
"This stealth advertising illustrates much of what's wrong with Michigan campaign finance law," said Rich Robinson of the nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network. "We are supposed to have a system of limits and accountability, but loopholes and flouting of the law conceal the identity of major financial stakeholders in election campaigns."
"That is particularly troublesome in judicial campaigns because those who finance these marketing efforts on behalf of the candidates frequently end up as litigants arguing a case in front of the justices they helped to elect. Voters should have a right to know these financial facts before they go to the polls."
Robinson pointed out that this high volume of unreported spending occurred when the majority on the nominally nonpartisan Supreme Court was not at stake. In view of Justice Elizabeth Weaver’s announced plan to retire this year, the majority on the Court will be at stake in the 2006 election.
"The last time the majority on the Court was at stake in the 2000 election, there was roughly $8 million in undisclosed spending and Michigan earned national attention for the denigrating tone of the Supreme Court campaign," said Robinson. "It would be a real positive for this state if the legislature, the governor, the Michigan Bar and the judiciary itself would exercise some leadership and reform this broken system of limits and accountability before the next election."