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Dark Money in the Judicial System

The Dark Money Threat to the Judicial System

By John Masson
Feb. 13, 2013

Dark money rises.

And no, we're not discussing an upcoming Batman sequel. We're talking about the amount of untraceable money being spent each cycle on elections, including—to the discomfiture of the experts—appellate judicial elections.

A panel sponsored by the League of Women Voters (LMV) in a packed Hutchins Hall classroom Monday evening examined the growth of dark money in Michigan judicial elections and the consequences for citizens concerned about the influence of these shadowy contributions on the administration of justice, especially at the appellate level.

Watch a video of the discussion.

The panel was made up of retired Michigan Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Kelly, Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, and former Michigan Law Assistant Dean Maryann Sarosi, '87, who worked on the campaign of newly elected Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bridget McCormack. McCormack is a former associate dean of clinical affairs at Michigan Law who now is a lecturer on the faculty.

"From my perspective, if you're talking about politics and you're not talking about money, you're not talking about politics," Robinson said. Robinson played several ads from the last election cycle to illustrate his point.

"We've got a culture now that's really overwhelming accountability in all the campaigns, but it's particularly damaging in a judicial campaign," Robinson said. "It's certainly corrosive of public trust and confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary."

Sarosi, who cited the McCormack campaign's naivete for its initial calculation that it would need to raise only $300,000 to $400,000 during the campaign, agreed. Her campaign job ended up morphing into a 16-hour-per-day fundraising marathon. And in the closing stages of the campaign, when the pressure ratcheted up with the appearance of anonymous ads attacking McCormack, Sarosi found herself raising something like $200,000 in 35 days—just as a matter of self-defense.

"That's crazy. It's crazy that we would be spending the last weeks going to such a base, such a low standard. It's crazy first of all, but it's also dispiriting," Sarosi said. "I feel like we can do better than that. That sounds Pollyanna-ish, but we can do better."

Kelly said the deficiencies in Michigan's campaign finance laws are many, but she expressed faith that the state's informed citizens have the power to change that. She took part in a year-long, bipartisan LWV study of judicial selection processes across the country that came up with a set of improvements Michigan's legislators could make to improve the process, and she stressed that a continuing bipartisan approach is crucial to achieving that goal.

The report is available at http://www.lwvmi.org/LWVMI.orgJSTF.html.

"What you need to know is who's behind the ads and how much they spend, but miraculously the Michigan campaign finance laws don't cover that," Kelly told the audience. "But I'm convinced that people like you can make it happen, if there's enough of you speaking out."

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