Anonymous donors dominated the race for Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, contributing more than 60% of the total spending in the race according to a new review by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.
In the race between Chief Justice Clifford Taylor and Judge Diane Hathaway, much of the spending was “off the books” in that it was candidate-focused “issue” advertising that is not subject to disclosure laws. This money–which is not reported in campaign finance reports–included a number of controversial ads:
- The Michigan Democratic Party spot that featured a dramatization of a sleeping judge and testimony of a litigant who claimed that Chief Justice Taylor slept during oral argument of her case.
- The Michigan Chamber of Commerce spot that encouraged viewers to contact Judge Hathaway and tell her not to be soft in sentencing sex offenders, as an unnamed assistant prosecutor asserted she had been in the past.
- The Michigan Republican Party spot that showed a bikini-clad woman frolicking on a beach and said that Judge Hathaway previously had pursued a seat on the Court of Appeals so she could have a light work load and enjoy leisure time on the beach.
According to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the Michigan Democratic Party and the Michigan Republican Party spent $3.75 million on television ads in the race.
Unfortunately, this unaccountable spending is nothing new. Since 2000, issue ad spending has almost equaled the amount of money raised by candidates.
The Michigan Campaign Finance Network is advocating for three policy reforms to improve the situation:
- Require full disclosure of the receipts and expenditures for campaign advertisements that feature the name or image of a candidate, whether the ads mention voting or not.
- Update disqualification standards for the Michigan Supreme Court to acknowledge the potential for conflict of interests when justices hear cases that involve major financial supporters of their election campaigns.
- Develop a system of public financing for Supreme Court campaigns, so candidate committees have a viable alternative to soliciting financial support from interest groups and attorneys who may be involved in future cases.