Report: Michigan Supreme Court election spending highest in nation

With three open seats on the Michigan Supreme Court drawing eight candidates and just over $9.5 million in spending in 2014, Michigan ranked highest in the nation for Supreme Court election spending, according to a newly-released report, Bankrolling the Bench: The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2013-14, which analyzes campaign trends in state Supreme Court elections.

Written by the nonpartisan organizations Justice at Stake, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics, the study also ranked Michigan first for both judicial candidate fundraising at $4.98 million, and outside spending, at $4.53 million. It saw the most money spent on TV advertising of any state, at an estimated $5.9 million. It also saw the biggest self-funder of the 2013-14 cycle in any state, Democratic candidate Richard Bernstein, who won a Supreme Court seat after contributing $1.8 million of his own money to his campaign. That sum accounted for 37 percent of total judicial election contributions in Michigan.

Finally, Michigan was one of only two states nationwide where the average spending per state Supreme Court seat topped $3 million, and one of five states where an average of at least $1 million was spent per seat.

“The hard numbers make it clear: when judges have to run for election, there is a risk that the concerns of ordinary people will take a back seat to the special interests and politicians who are trying to reshape courts to fit their agendas,” said Scott Greytak, Justice at Stake Policy Counsel and Research Analyst and the lead author of the report.
“This turns how we choose our judges into a political circus that is bad for our courts and bad for democracy. The good news is that we can fix this. We can work toward real reforms like merit selection, to help get money and politics out of the process, so judges can focus on their real work instead of raising money and fending off political attacks, and so all of us can have confidence that our courts are fair and impartial.”

“As special interest groups continue to pump money into judicial races, Americans will rightfully question whether courtroom decisions are being influenced by campaign cash,” said Alicia Bannon, senior counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice and co-author of Bankrolling the Bench. “Fifteen years of data makes clear that high-cost and politicized judicial elections are not going away. States are long overdue in rethinking how they select judges and in adopting common sense reforms such as public financing and stronger rules regulating when judges must step aside from cases. Without real policy change, fair and impartial justice is at risk.”

“Like clockwork, every two years the state of Michigan has the most expensive, least transparent judicial elections in America, “ said Rich Robinson, Executive Director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. “It may well be the case that most of the money supporting two of the winning Supreme Court candidates came from a litigant with a high-stakes case in the appeals pipeline who wanted to assure a friendly sort of predictable jurisprudence. The dark money in Michigan Supreme Court campaigns is a national disgrace and a grave threat to impartial justice.”

Nationally, Bankrolling the Bench shows that, while overall election spending was slightly lower than other recent cycles due to a high number of uncontested races, more than $34.5 million was spent on state Supreme Court elections in a total of 19 states—much of it coming from special interests. Outside spending by interest groups in judicial races rose to a record-setting 29 percent of total spending, or 10.1 million dollars, in 2013-14, topping the previous record of 27 percent in 2011-12. When outside spending by political parties was also included, total outside dollars accounted for 40 percent of total judicial election spending, a record for a non-presidential election cycle.

This special interest spending was spurred in part by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, which loosened restrictions on independent political expenditures.

Other key findings about the Michigan Supreme Court election were as follows:

• A big outside spender was the Virginia-based Center for Individual Freedom. It spent just over than $468,000 on TV ads that applauded two Republican-appointed justices for having “thrown the book at violent child predators.”

• Michigan had four of the nation’s top spenders in the 2013-14 cycle. They were the Michigan Republican Party, ranked first, at $3.88 million; candidate Richard Bernstein, ranked third, at $1.85 million (spent individually); the Center for Individual Freedom, ranked ninth at nearly $468,00; and Michigan Realtors Super PAC/Michigan Association of Realtors, ranked 10th, at $414,000.

• According to an analysis by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network of Michigan Bureau of Elections filings and public files of state broadcasters and cable systems, more than $4.6 million in TV spending on the elections was never disclosed to campaign finance authorities in 2014.

• Incumbent Republican Justices Brian Zahra and David Viviano were re-elected with substantial support from the Republican Party, the Michigan Farm Bureau, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, and donors from the finance, insurance, and real estate industries.

• Michigan had three of the nation’s top ten candidate fundraisers. They were Bernstein, ranked first with total contributions raised at $2.2 million; Zahra, fifth, at close to $954,000; and Viviano, seventh, at $887,000.