A group of legal experts, including a sitting Michigan Supreme Court justice and a U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals judge, and other stakeholders have come out with a series of proposed reforms to the ways the state finances, nominates and oversees the election of state Supreme Court justices.
Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Kelly, a Democrat, and Republican 6th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge James L. Ryan helmed the Michigan Judicial Selection Task Force, a 24-member panel established in December 2010, which late last month unveiled recommendations that include full disclosure of state Supreme Court campaign advertisement funding; elimination of the partisan nomination process and implementation of one akin to that which exists for the non-partisan election system; and a state constitutional amendment that would eliminate what the group called the “arbitrary” prohibition on appointing or electing a judge 70-years-old or older, among others.
In addition, the group is also calling for gubernatorial creation of an advisory commission to screen candidates for appointment to vacant seats on the state Supreme Court, as well as the Michigan Secretary of State’s Office to compose “a short, neutral biography describing each candidate’s background, judicial evaluations, and qualifying characteristics” to help educate a sometimes uninformed public about the candidates for state Supreme Court, since “races for supreme court justice rarely attract enough media attention” to fill in the electorate on that pertinent information.
The group argues that over 50 percent of all spending on state Supreme Court races in the last decade went undisclosed, creating a transparency vacuum, particularly considering that political parties ($5.5 million) and special interest groups ($1.27 million) combined spent about three times as much as the candidates themselves ($2.34 million) in the 2010 campaign for the Supreme Court.
Partisanship is also a problem, the task force said. Despite the fact that state Supreme Court candidates run on non-partisan ballots, they must still secure a political party’s nomination at a nominating convention, which “compels would-be candidates for nomination to the Supreme Court to compete for support from party insiders, who may prefer conformity to party ideology over devotion to the judicial qualities of impartiality, even temper, and intellectual honesty.”
That’s a troublesome issue, the group stated, because it “strengthens the popular perception of the justices as partisan” when they have to “spend precious resources pursuing party loyalists’ endorsements and funds from across the state.”
The task force is also calling for an advisory screening commission that would screen candidates for appointment to vacant seats on the state Supreme Court.
“Currently the governor exercises unfettered discretion; regardless of how thoughtfully governors have approached their weighty responsibility in this respect, there may remain a belief that raw political calculation, rather than the qualifications of the appointed justices, forms the basis for these vacancy appointments,” the task force wrote in a 60-page report that also includes legislative language for consideration. “A non-partisan advisory commission composed of lawyers and non-lawyers could publicly evaluate and recommend potential appointees on ability and qualifications alone. Such a process would restore the public’s confidence in the governor’s vacancy appointments to the supreme court.”
In addition, the task force is recommending the establishment of a non-partisan citizens campaign oversight committee that would monitor both candidates’ and third-party political advertisements for state Supreme Court candidates in order to “check the factual claims in the advertisements and denounce false, misleading, or destructive messages.”
“The honesty, respect, and fairness that citizens expect from their courts should also mark campaigns for judicial office,” the panel stated. “The campaign oversight committee would identify departures from these values.”
Rich Robinson, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, served as a project assistant to the task force, a position that stipulated that he couldn’t vote on the proposal the group came up with.
“I think it’s important in every election so voters can cast an informed ballot based on knowledge of who’s supporting the candidates,” he said of the financial disclosure provisions. “There’s the additional element in the judicial election that, when you have a campaign supporter involved in a case before one of the justices, that’s doubly important that (his or her contributors) are known.”
Robinson admitted that getting the reforms through the state Legislature is going to be “a tough climb,” but said he believes Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration and key lawmakers will give the ideas “a fair hearing.”
“We’ll just have to see.”
State Sen. Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge), who chairs the state Senate Judiciary Committee, said representatives from the task force have asked to meet with him this week. He added that, while he hasn’t been “completely briefed” on the proposals the group has put forward, he’s “willing to listen to any idea and give it due diligence.”