MCFN urges Supremes to consider campaign spending in DQ rule

LANSING – The Michigan Campaign Finance Network is urging the Michigan Supreme Court to consider campaign spending as a reason for recusal, in response to the Court’s invitation for public comment on draft disqualification rules.

Citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the case of Caperton v. Massey Coal Company, where the Court held that a litigant’s due process rights had been violated when an elected West Virginia Supreme Court justice refused to recuse himself from a case involving an extraordinary campaign financial supporter, Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network asked the Michigan Supreme Court to adopt rigorous recusal standards that would avoid constitutional due process questions.

Michigan has experienced a series of high-spending Supreme Court campaigns over the past decade. More than $30 million was spent from 2000 through 2008, according to data compiled by MCFN. Of that amount, more than $14 million purchased candidate-focused issue advertisements that are not disclosed in State campaign finance reports. This creates a particular dilemma because the identities of major campaign spenders are unknown, making it is impossible to know when a disqualification motion may be in order. To solve this problem, Robinson recommended to the Court that participants in Supreme Court cases should file affidavits disclosing contributions they have made to justices’ campaign committees, and to committees that pay for “issue” advertisements and other independent spending in Supreme Court campaigns.

“Historically, the Michigan Supreme Court has been behind the curve on the issue of disqualification rules,” said Robinson. “To its great credit, the Court is now taking on the broad question of disqualification and recusal, and it is in a position to lead state courts across the nation in addressing the issue of big campaign spenders who show up in court cases. In a very real sense, the eyes of the nation are on the Michigan Supreme Court.”

MCFN commissioned a poll of Michigan voters in March of this year on questions of campaign spending and judicial bias. Among the key findings:

• Ninety-six percent of Michigan voters said it is important that all sources of spending for judicial election campaigns are publicly disclosed.

• Ninety-three percent of Michigan voters said it is important that judges are independent of influence from financial supporters of their election campaigns.

• Sixty-seven percent of Michigan voters doubt a judge’s ability to be fair and impartial in a case where one of the parties spent $50,000 to support the judge’s election.

• Seventy-seven percent of Michigan voters doubt a judge’s ability to be fair and impartial in a case where one of the parties spent $1 million to support the judge’s election.

• Eighty-five percent of Michigan voters believe that a judge should not hear a case that involves a party who has spent $50,000 to support his election.

The Michigan Supreme Court will hold a public hearing on disqualification rules on September 2nd in Lansing.

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