LANSING – By a three-to-one margin, Michigan voters believe that there is a probability of bias when a judge hears a case involving a major financial supporter of his election campaign. Eighty-five percent believe that a judge should disqualify himself from a case involving such a campaign supporter.
Those are among the key findings of a new statewide poll conducted for the Michigan Campaign Finance Network by Denno-Noor Research.
The poll comes on the heels of a number of developments that have elevated the question of judicial impartiality in a time of multi-million-dollar judicial election campaigns:
· Michigan had its most expensive Michigan Supreme Court campaign ever in November 2008 at $7.3 million for a single seat on the court.
· The Michigan Supreme Court has decided to publish competing drafts of new recusal standards for itself, and invite public comment on those proposals.
· The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard the landmark case of Caperton v. Massey Coal Company, in which the question before the court is whether a state supreme court justice should be required to disqualify himself from a case involving a major election campaign supporter.
In general, the poll showed strong voter discomfort with the effect of big-money judicial campaigns.
· 93 percent believe that is important that judges are independent of contributors to their campaigns.
· 63 percent believe that campaign contributions affect the decisions judges make, with 31 percent saying campaign contributions make ‘a lot’ of difference. Among self-described political independents, 45 percent said campaign contributions make ‘a lot’ of difference.
· 85 percent said that a judge should disqualify himself from a case that involves a campaign backer who spent $50,000 to support the judge’s election.
· If a judge is asked to disqualify himself from a case for reasons of perceived bias, only seven percent said that the judge in question should have the final say as to whether or not to disqualify himself. 86 percent said that another judge should make the final determination on whether the original judge should be disqualified.
· 96 percent said it is important that all sources of spending in judicial campaigns are publicly disclosed. 80 percent said such disclosure is ‘very important.’
“These findings are an important expression of the values of Michigan voters,” said Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. “I hope these data will help to inform the Michigan Supreme Court as it considers new recusal standards for itself.”
“We should also hope that the Legislature will pay attention to that desire for full transparency in judicial campaign finances,” Robinson said. “The Supreme Court can come up with rigorous recusal standards but they won’t have the desired effect if we continue to have campaigns where half the money is off the books because we don’t require financial reporting of so-called issue ads. The situation we have is shameful and the Supreme Court can’t fix it by itself.”
About the survey: The poll was conducted by phone by Denno-Noor Research for the Michigan Campaign Finance Network from March 9 through March 14, 2009. The poll sample was 600 individuals who said they voted, either in person or by absentee ballot, in the November 2008 election.