Michigan High Court Races Most Expensive in Nation in 2009-10

State Also Led in Negative Ads, Special-Interest Spending, Report Says

Michigan easily had the nation’s costliest judicial elections in 2009-2010, fueled by a nasty TV ad blitzkrieg funded by special-interests group, a new report by three nonpartisan legal reform groups discloses.

Campaign spending for Michigan Supreme Court seats was estimated at as high as $11.1 million, and most of the special-interest spending stayed hidden from public view. The state Republican and Democratic Parties channeled millions in secret money into election ads—evading accountability as they spent.

Nationally, state high-court candidates and special-interest groups spent $38.4 million, and a growing portion of that money was spent by a small number of secretive special-interest groups. The 2010 high court elections were followed by a ferocious series of legislative attacks against the nation’s court system.

“Michigan has become a national symbol of special-interest pressure on our courts of law,” said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of the Justice at Stake Campaign, a nonpartisan legal reform group.

“The fact that Michigan led the nation in undisclosed spending in a state judicial campaign is a distinction of dishonor,” said Rich Robinson, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. “The Michigan Legislature and our constitutional executives should be ashamed. Then they should get to work to require public disclosure of who is spending millions of dollars every election to influence our courts.”

The report, entitled “The New Politics of Judicial Elections, 2009-10,” was written by the Justice at Stake Campaign, the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Institute on Money in State Politics. It is available at www.newpoliticsreport.org.

According to the report, independent spending was so high in elections for the narrowly divided Michigan Supreme Court that it eclipsed the efforts of the four judicial candidates, who raised a total $2.3 million. The state GOP single-handedly outspent all the candidates, investing more than $4 million in electoral support. Here are other key findings from the “New Politics” report:

• Michigan ranked as a national leader in three categories in 2009-10: total campaign spending; total TV spending; and number of negative ads aired. TV ads aired by three non-candidate groups totaled nearly $4.3 million, compared with a total of less than $900,000 in ads by the four candidates for the bench.

• The Democrats’ campaign against Justice Robert Young reached the cellar with an ad that said Young “used the word ‘Slut!’ and ‘The “N” Word!’ in deliberations with other justices” and urged voters to call Young and “tell him we don't need a racist or a sexist on the Michigan Supreme Court.”

• An outside group, the Law Enforcement Alliance of America, contributed an ad suggesting that Democrat Denise Langford Morris was “soft on crime for rappers, lawyers, and child pornographers.”

• The Michigan Republican Party ranked as the top super spender nationwide after paying out more than $4 million, and the Michigan Democratic Party ranked fourth for super spenders, at more than $1.5 million.

A series of “New Politics” reports since 2000 has highlighted skyrocketing special-interest spending that has altered the face of state Supreme Court contests and eroded public confidence in fair and impartial courts.

According to a national poll released today, 83 percent believe that campaign contributions have a “great deal” or “some” influence on a judge’s decisions; 93% believe judges should not hear cases involving major financial supporters; and 84% believe that all contributions to a judicial candidate should be “quickly disclosed and posted to a web site.”

The total of $38.4 million spent in 2009-10 was somewhat less than the amount spent in the last non-presidential election cycle, in 2005-06. However, $16.8 million was spent on TV advertising, making 2009-10 the costliest non-presidential cycle for TV spending in judicial elections.

Outside groups continued their hostile attempts to take over state high court elections, pumping in nearly 30 percent of all money spent—far higher than four years earlier.

The 2010 election aftermath also was troubling: Judicial and legislative elections sparked an unprecedented post-election attack on state courts. This included challenges to merit selection systems for choosing judges, a campaign to roll back public financing, and threats to impeach judges for unpopular decisions.

“Cumulatively, these attacks represented a historically significant concerted attack on judicial independence, and on various reforms intended to reduce the influence of money and politics on state courts,” the report warned. “The season raised the distinct possibility—or likelihood—that the attacks will resume as soon as statehouses reopen in 2012.”

About the Organizations

Justice at Stake Campaign

The Justice at Stake Campaign is a nonpartisan national partnership working to keep our courts fair, impartial and free from special-interest and partisan agendas. In states across America, Campaign partners work to protect our courts through public education, grass-roots organizing and reform. The Campaign provides strategic coordination and brings organizational, communications and research resources to the work of its partners and allies at the national, state and local levels.

The Brennan Center for Justice

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law is a non-partisan public policy and law institute that focuses on fundamental issues of democracy and justice. Our work ranges from voting rights to campaign finance reform, from racial justice in criminal law to presidential power in the fight against terrorism. A singular institution – part think tank, part public interest law firm, part advocacy group – the Brennan Center combines scholarship, legislative and legal advocacy, and communications to win meaningful, measurable change in the public sector.

The National Institute on Money in State Politics

The National Institute on Money in State Politics collects, publishes, and analyzes data on campaign money in state elections. The database dates back to the 1990 election cycle for some states and is comprehensive for all 50 states since the 1999–2000 election cycle. The Institute has compiled a 50-state summary of state supreme court contribution data from 1989 through the present, as well as complete, detailed databases of campaign contributions for all state high-court judicial races beginning with the 2000 elections.

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